In the first primaries, voters prefer polling places to the post office

ATLANTA – The big wave of mail-in voting appears to be receding as quickly as it arrived.

After tens of millions of people in the United States opted for mail-in ballots during the 2020 pandemic election, voters in the primary states are returning in droves to in-person voting this year.

In Georgia, one of the hottest states, about 85,000 voters requested mail-in ballots for Thursday’s May 24 primaries. That’s a dramatic decrease from the nearly 1 million who voted by mail in the 2020 state primaries at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The trend was similar in Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, which held primaries this month; comparisons were not available for Nebraska, another early primary state.

A rollback to mail-in voting was expected, given the alleviation of COVID-19 concerns, but some election officials and voting experts predicted that many more voters would seek the convenience of mail-in voting once they experience it.

Helping to drive the rollback is the rollback of temporary rules expanding mail-in ballots in 2020, combined with distrust of the process among Republicans and concerns about new voting restrictions among Democrats. And a year and a half of former President Donald Trump and his allies making false claims about mail-in voting to explain their defeat to Democrat Joe Biden has also taken a toll on voter confidence.

“It is unfortunate that our electoral system has been mischaracterized and the integrity of our elections questioned,” said Ben Hovland, a Trump-nominated Democrat to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. “Mail ballots are a secure method of voting used by millions of Americans, myself included.”

A record 43% of U.S. voters cast ballots by mail in 2020, compared with 24.5% in 2016, according to the commission’s survey of local election officials. The number of voters who used early voting in person also increased, although the jump was not as big as for mail-in ballots, according to the survey.

Prior to the November 2020 elections, 12 states expanded access to mail-in ballots by loosening certain requirements. Another five mailed ballots to all eligible voters or allowed local officials to do so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This year, eight states will send ballots to all eligible voters.

In Georgia, state officials adopted unapologetic mail-in ballots and three weeks of in-person early voting before the pandemic. Laws surrounding mail-in voting changed after the 2020 election, amid Trump’s effort to discredit the result after his minor defeat in the state.

There is no evidence to support Trump’s claims of widespread fraud or a conspiracy to steal the election. Judges, including some Trump appointees, have rejected several lawsuits contesting the results. An exhaustive review by the Associated Press of all possible cases of voter fraud in 2020 in the six states disputed by Trump did not find enough instances to affect the outcome.

That hasn’t stopped Republican state lawmakers from citing voter security concerns as justification for new restrictions on voting, and mail-in voting in particular. The changes confused some voters. In Texas, voters were misled by new identification requirements in the state’s March primaries, resulting in an unusually high rate of mail-in ballot rejections.

Applying for a ballot by mail is significantly more difficult now in Georgia than it was in 2020, when voters could go online to request that a ballot be mailed to them without a printed request. Part of the Republican-imposed 2021 election law required voters to print or obtain a paper form, then sign it in ink before mailing, emailing or faxing it.

Voters must also include their driver’s license number or some other form of identification after Republicans decided that the voter signature matching process was no longer sufficient security for a missing ballot application.

“I couldn’t even understand it,” said Ursula Gruenewald, who lives in Cobb County, north of Atlanta. “Before, I used to click a button on a website and they would send me my ballot. I don’t know what they want now.”

Gruenewald said he usually votes by mail but decided last week to look for a nearby early voting center, noting that he waited in line for two hours to vote in person in 2016.

Experts said it was too early to say whether voting patterns had permanently changed. How people vote in primaries does not necessarily reflect how they will vote in a general election, when turnout will be higher and voters may be more concerned about crowded polling places and long lines.

Preliminary data from Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia also show that the number of mail-in ballots released this year is a fraction of what states saw in the 2020 primaries and approaching 2018 levels.

In Virginia’s governor’s election last year, the percentage of votes cast by mail was slightly higher than it was four years earlier, but noticeably lower than in 2020, said Charles Stewart III, an election expert and professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The elections are kind of getting back to where they were,” he said.

In Georgia, polling groups are concerned that a new earlier deadline to apply for a ballot by mail will cause voters to stumble if they wait too long. They are also closely watching the rate of banknote rejections. About 1,000 mail-in voting requests have been rejected so far, or about 1.2% of all requests received. That’s a lower rate than the 2018 primary and slightly higher than the 2020 election.

As of the end of last week, 195 mailed ballots had been rejected, mostly due to missing or incorrect identification information, which are new requirements under state law. Common Cause Georgia has deployed “self-help stations” across the state, where voters can access a computer, printer and scanner to print out a mail-in voting application before the Friday deadline.

“People are believing political propaganda and not understanding that is creating more obstacles to voting,” said Aunna Dennis, the group’s executive director.

Georgia voters, instead, are turning to record-breaking early, in-person voting. About 305,000 ballots were deposited at early voting locations across the state, or three times more than they did in the same period during the 2018 primaries, according to state officials.

Outside an early polling location north of Atlanta, some voters said they simply preferred the convenience of voting early and in person, while others said they feared mail-in ballots weren’t as secure.

“Today I walked in, got my ballot, voted and I’m leaving,” said Bill Baldwin, who returned to voting in person after voting by mail in 2020 over concerns about the pandemic. “And I’m not in line on the other side of the building.”

Debbie Hamby, a nurse who lives in Kennesaw, north of Atlanta, said she supports limits on mail-in ballots and believes that voting in person is safer. She also voted early last week.

“There’s no question about who the person is if you have their license and ID,” Hamby said. “You can see that the person in the photo is the person who is voting, and we know it is an honest vote.”

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