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The November election season has officially started, as North Carolina begins sending out mail ballots

Boxes of envelopes are seen as election workers stuff ballot applications Friday at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections office in Charlotte.
Boxes of envelopes are seen as election workers stuff ballot applications Friday at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections office in Charlotte. (Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images)
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General-election voting kicked off Friday as North Carolina began mailing out more than 650,000 absentee ballots — far more than the number requested at this point in 2016 and a preview of the deluge of mail-in ballots likely to hit voting offices around the country this fall.

States have seen a surge in requests for absentee ballots as voters seek alternatives to in-person voting because of the coronavirus pandemic. North Carolina is the first state to send out absentee ballots, but by mid-September, at least 20 other states will also begin mailing out ballots.

The early start, coupled with the record-setting number of people expected to vote by mail in many states, means that an unusually large number of voters could cast their ballots long before Election Day on Nov. 3. In North Carolina, where any eligible voter can request an absentee ballot, voters can return their ballots as early as next week.

“It’s not Election Day. It’s election months — plural,” said Michael Bitzer, political science professor at Catawba College in North Carolina.

Voting in North Carolina garnered attention this week after President Trump suggested to voters that they should try casting ballots more than once to test the integrity of the voting system in the presidential battleground state.

Trump and other Republicans have repeatedly sought to undermine trust in the mail-in voting system this year, incorrectly claiming that it is particularly vulnerable to widespread fraud. Problems with mail delivery, partially caused by changes enacted by a postmaster general who is an ally of Trump’s, have deepened worries about the Postal Service and led many voters to request their ballots early.

Minuscule number of potentially fraudulent ballots in states with universal mail voting undercuts Trump claims about election risks

Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, issued a statement this week emphasizing that voting twice in an election is a Class 1 felony, and that voting twice or soliciting someone else to do so is also a violation of North Carolina law.

The state’s absentee ballots are rigorously tracked to avoid mistakes or fraud, voting advocates say. They are logged as soon as they are requested by the voter, mailed out by election officials and returned to the election office, Bitzer said. The state also uses a ballot-tracking service that makes it easy to check their status.

Voters can also drop off their absentee ballots in person at a county board of elections office by Election Day.

As of early afternoon Friday, the state had mailed out more than 536,000 of the 653,261 absentee ballots requested by voters. At this point in 2016, by comparison, some 38,000 absentee ballots had been requested.

The state has seen a shift in the demographics of those seeking to use absentee ballots, Bitzer said. In 2016, a plurality of those who requested and cast such ballots were Republican, at 40 percent. Thirty-one percent were Democrats, and the rest were unaffiliated with a party. But this year, more than half of the requests are from registered Democrats, he said.

A higher proportion of Black voters have requested absentee ballots this year compared with the 2016 election, Bitzer said, citing state elections data.

“It’s just an exponential increase [of absentee ballot requests] that we have never seen before in the state,” he said. “I would attribute that to voter engagement, voter enthusiasm” in addition to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Voters have until Oct. 27 to request an absentee ballot, but election officials are urging them to request one as early as possible.

“We are encouraging people to get their requests in as soon as possible, because there is such an overwhelming demand for absentee ballots this year,” said Patrick Gannon, spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

The number of absentee ballots requested for the election dwarfs the absentee turnout in 2016. That year, 4 percent of the state’s registered voters had voted by mail. As of Friday morning, 9 percent of the state’s roughly 7 million registered voters had already requested mail-in ballots, Gannon said.

Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.