Monday, July 13, 2020

An Estimate of Where NC Stands in Absentee-by-Mail Ballot Requests

By Michael Bitzer

Note: this article was posted at 8:30 AM on Monday, July 13; during the day, I received more updated numbers from several counties, and have updated the overall numbers given below at 9 PM on Monday, July 13. 

The issue of voting by mail continues to cause controversy in the news, especially by unsubstantiated allegations that voting by mail allows for rampant fraud. Recent tweets by the president alleging "mail in ballot fraud found in many elections," while providing no specific cases or facts, continues to keep an important method of casting ballots in the spotlight.

We know that other states are utilizing voting by mail for the general election, but North Carolina has had mail-in voting as its original form of absentee voting. And typically, NC vote by mail ballots are a relatively small percentage of overall ballots cast in an election--but 2020 may herald a new day in NC voting, if early numbers are any indication of voters requesting mail-in ballots. And, as I’ll explain below, we have a general sense of what those early numbers are like, as of mid-July.

First off, what is voting by mail and its current controversy?

Scholars and researchers of voting methods are baffled by the president's attacks on this voting method, in which the president labels absentee voting as 'safe' while voting by mail as prone to 'fraud'--even though the two are often one in the same. The president's attacks have amplified, like many other issues, a partisan divide, as noted in a recent Washington Post article:

In research that I have done on the different methods that North Carolina voters utilize, voting by mail is typically four to five percent of the state's total ballots cast in a presidential year:

In NC, voters using mail-in ballots are much more likely to be used by registered Republicans: in 2008, 54 percent of all absentee by mail ballots came from registered GOP voters, while in 2012, half of all the mail-in ballots came from registered Republicans. But in 2016, the registered Republican share slipped to 40 percent.

Vote-by-mail is one of the two absentee voting methods in the state, the other being in person, or "one-stop," absentee voting. The predominate absentee vote method remains 'in-person' voting: in 2016, 61 percent of the total ballots cast came from one-stop, in-person voting, with another five percent from absentee by mail--meaning, two-thirds of all the ballots cast came before Election Day.

And as far as 'fraud' conducted by vote by mail, it bears repeating that the overwhelming evidence is that fraud is extremely rare when it comes to vote methods. Now, those of us in North Carolina have first-hand knowledge of a situation where vote by mail was used in election fraud--the North Carolina Ninth Congressional District's 2018 election. The NC Ninth was such a rare example that it did generate the kind of national headlines and scrutiny we would expect for an intentional electoral deception, though the deception was not by the voters but instead by a campaign surrogate.

Expectations Are For a Surge In Mail-In Ballots For November:

Vote by mail, whether it is labeled absentee by mail or whether a state may decide to conduct its entire election by mail (which five do on a regular basis), is very likely to see a significant increase in usage this year, despite the unsubstantiated protestations against it.

This increase could be due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which appears to be continuing apace, at least here in North Carolina, while surging in other states. If voters are concerned about the coronavirus and standing in line to vote, vote by mail may provide the opportunity to address public health concerns while still exercising the fundamental civic duty of voting.

Typically in North Carolina, information about those requesting absentee by mail ballots and then returning them is public, which scholars and campaigns could use for tracking who is casting ballots (but not how they are voting--that information is only released after the polls close on Election Day). However, the NC 9th Congressional District episode led to changes that closed off the information about which voters were requesting absentee by mail ballots, to prevent the same kind of fraud that was uncovered in the Ninth. A recent revision to state law also loosened the requirements for voting by mail, due to the pandemic.

Where Do The 2020 Estimates Come From?

Even though we are still several months away from the November general election, North Carolina voters are requesting absentee by mail ballots now, as is typical in an election year. So, until the absentee by mail ballots are sent out in early September to those who have requested the ballots and return them, we don't know exact numbers or dynamics of who are requesting mail-in ballots.

On Friday, July 10, I asked about whether the number of requests could be released, and secured a July 7 report generated by the North Carolina State Board of Elections. That report gave the preliminary numbers of absentee by mail ballot requests submitted to the various counties. In a follow up to all 100 county board of elections on Friday, 57 counties indicated increased numbers since the report was generated.

With this report and the additional information from some counties, I have estimated data from 91 out of the 100 counties and a sense of where things stand in terms of the number of requests coming in for absentee by mail ballots across North Carolina, especially compared to 2016. As a note: the 91 counties represent 99 percent of the reported 2016 requests that I'll be using as a comparison.

2016's Absentee by Mail Ballot Requests

First, what did we see in 2016, both at the same time prior to the election (that would have been July 12, 2016) and for the total number of requests generated for the 2016 election (again, partisan data was available at that time):

  • On July 12, 2016: 15,702 requests had been submitted for absentee by mail ballots
  • Of that nearly 16,000 requests, 39 percent were from registered Democrats, 37 percent were from registered Republicans, and 24 percent were from registered unaffiliated voters.
  • By the end of the 2016 election request period: a little under 232,000 requests had been submitted for absentee by mail ballots
  • Of that total number of requests, 39 percent were from registered Republicans, 31 percent from registered Democrats, and 29 percent were from registered unaffiliated voters. 
  • At this same point in 2016 (mid-July), North Carolina county board of elections had received approximately 7 percent of the total requests for the election. 

And Now in 2020?

For 2020, we don't have the party registration data of voters requesting a mail-in ballot, but the general numbers show a striking surge to both this point four years ago and where we may be heading to November in comparison to 2016's totals.

Out of the 91 reporting counties, 57 followed up with me on Friday, July 10, with additional information on their current requests. Some counties are publicly releasing information on their current numbers and other information, such as Durham County's Board of Elections.

Another word on this data: for counties who followed up with their numbers, some provided an estimate, so the following numbers should not be viewed as concrete.

Based on these figures, the 2020 estimated requests for absentee by mail ballots are:

  • approximately 65,500 69,500 requests have been submitted for absentee by mail ballots for the November 3, 2020 general election.
  • Compared to four years ago, this represents a four-times increase in requested ballots at this same time in 2016 (15,702). 
  • In comparison to 2016's total number of requests, the current 69K requests so far represents 28 30 percent of what North Carolina saw in 2016. 
To summarize a comparative sense of the numbers from both years (again, lacking data on party registration for these year's requests):
20162020 est.Increase
Requests as of mid-July15,70269,500443%
% from Registered Democrats39%n/a
% from Registered Unaffiliated24%       n/a
% from Registered Republicans37%       n/a

And for the 2016 totals and this year so far:
% of 2016's
20162020 so far:
Total Requests231,78269,50030%
% from Registered Democrats31%
% from Registered Unaffiliated29%
% from Registered Republicans39%

Differences in Urban, Suburban, and Rural County Requests

One dynamic that can be further analyzed is the breakdown by urban, suburban, and rural counties, based on a methodology that I have frequently used

Among the state's 54 rural counties, the absentee by mail ballot requests are double what was seen this same time in 2016 (currently a little over 4,800 compared to 2,385 four years ago this same time). 

Among the state's 19 urban counties, the requests for absentee by mail ballots are 4.46 times ahead of where the number stood in 2016: currently, nearly 47,500 requests to 10,632 four years ago.

And among the state's 27 suburban counties, we have gone from 2,685 in 2016 to over 13,400, a five times increase from four years ago this same time. 

Here's the regional comparison in chart form:
July 2016July 2020 est.2020 as % of 2016
Rural           2,385          5,822244%
Urban         10,632        47,700449%
Suburban           2,685        16,000596%

So what do these numbers seem to indicate?

Nobody knows what the environment will be like come November, either in terms of the politics or the public health. But it would appear that a substantial number of North Carolina's voters are starting to prepare for using a vote method that would keep them from having to stand in line and potentially confront COVID-19. 

We will have to await the return of mail ballots to begin to get a sense of various demographic factors behind who is utilizing this vote method, and that data will start to be reported in early September once the ballots have been mailed out and comes back to each county board of elections. In addition, using data from 2016 and how each voter cast their ballot then, we will also be able to track if there is a significant shift of formerly in-person voters going to voting by mail for this November.

Lastly, folks will want to know which political party will benefit from this dynamic, and I will respond with the same words I started two paragraphs above: nobody knows. However, what we possibly know is that North Carolinians are interested in mail-in voting, and it could reshape what we know about vote methods in the Old North State for 2020's general election.


Dr. Michael Bitzer holds the Leonard Chair of Political Science at Catawba College, where he is a professor of politics and history; he tweets at @bowtiepolitics