This article was made possible by research by Carlos Massana and Katie Wooten.
- The NC State Board of Elections is assuming that mail voting will account for 30-40% of all votes in the November election.
- Data from early absentee ballot requests indicates that absentee-by-mail will account for 14-18% of all votes, meaning that election officials could be misallocating resources.
- There is wide variation by county on absentee ballot request rates, but the political impact of that variation is unclear.
An article in the Charlotte Observer on July 13 has a headline screaming “Coronavirus fears spark ‘striking surge’ of mail-in ballot requests” (link may be behind paywall). To underscore how shocking they want you to think the growth in the number of absentee ballot requests is compared to 2016, they quote Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer:
“We all were expecting a run-up in mail-in ballots,” Bitzer said Monday. “I don’t think anybody would have expected that rate at this point.”
I am not sure why anyone would be surprised by the increase in absentee ballot applications. It is consistent with data I presented a month ago indicating that absentee-by-mail voting will be 3-5 times greater in 2020 than it was in 2016. That data also indicates that the proportion of votes in the 2020 general election that is absentee-by-mail will be in the mid-teens, not the 30-40 percent predicted by NC State Board of Elections (SBE) Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell.
North Carolina is on pace to have 14-18 percent absentee-by-mail voting
In a May 26-28 Civitas/Harper poll, 14% of likely voters in North Carolina indicated that they planned to vote by mail (question 17, page 6). That was consistent with other data I found, including the rate of early mail voting in the 11th Congressional District second primary and the rate of absentee ballot requests for the general election in Wake County (as noted in that article, data available from the State Board of Elections at the time was not reliable).
To help get a better idea of the rate of absentee-by-mail voting this fall, we asked the board of elections in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties how many absentee ballot requests they had received by June 30. For comparison, we also asked for the number of absentee ballot requests they had received by June 30 in 2016. Of those, 77 provided data for both years, 21 provided data for one year (and so could not be used), and two did not provide any data. The 77 counties that replied accounted for 91% of all North Carolina votes in 2016 and 92.6% of all absentee-by-mail votes in 2016.
The 77 counties included in this study reported receiving 14,299 absentee ballot requests by June 30, 2016. By June 30 of 2020, those counties reported receiving 48,186 absentee ballot requests, an increase of 337%.
While that sounds impressive, it does not take into account the extremely low rate of absentee-by-mail voting in 2016. Absentee-by-mail only accounted for 4.1% of all votes in those counties in 2016, so an increase of 337% would mean that absentee-by-mail would account for 13.8% of all votes in the November general election, assuming that turnout in 2020 will be similar to turnout in 2016. If turnout increases, as some expect it will, the proportion of votes delivered by mail will be even less.
Similar research posted at Old North State Politics (but with different data sources and a slightly different timeframe) found an increase in absentee ballot requests of 443% from 2016 to 2020. That would put North Carolina on pace to having 18.1% of all votes in the November general election being by mail.
Both findings indicated that mail voting will be well below the 30-40% rate Brinson Bell predicted.
As I have previously noted, getting the proportion of voting by mail right is important because election officials are going to allocate resources based on how they expect people to vote. If election officials plan for the wrong election, they could mismanage November and potentially endanger voters.
Wide variation in absentee ballot requests by county
When looking at a statewide average, you can expect variation by county. That was the case here. The highest rate of increase in absentee ballot requests was in Vance County, from one request in 2016 to 109 requests in 2020. On the other extreme, Robeson County (which had absentee ballot problems in 2018) saw a decrease in absentee ballot requests from 60 requests in 2016 to one in 2020. As we get closer to the election, we can expect those extreme examples to get closer to the statewide average.
Looking at the map in figure 1, it is hard to spot a pattern other than a general urban-rural split, with the Triangle and Charlotte metro areas having a higher increase in absentee ballot requests and more rural areas having a smaller increase (or decrease) in absentee ballot requests. Old North State found similar findings, with counties they classified as urban or suburban having a higher increase in the absentee ballot request rate than rural counties.
So, some counties may have absentee-by-mail voting rates much higher than the state average while other counties will see only a small fraction of their votes come in the mailbox. The variation in absentee-by-mail voting by county will likely be larger than usual this year (more on that below), so each county board of elections is going to have to make its own plan for the general election, regardless of statewide projections by the SBE.
“Trump” counties will vote by mail much less than “Clinton” counties
So, how will the variation in absentee ballot requests affect voting in the election? The May 26-28 Civitas/Harper poll found wide variation by party on intent to vote by mail (top of page 109). While 21.4% of Democrats said that they planned to vote absentee by mail, only 4.2% of Republicans said they intended to do so. As one might expect, unaffiliated voters split the difference with 13.7% saying that they planned to vote by mail.
We can also get a rough idea of partisan trends in absentee-by-mail voting by comparing counties won by Donald Trump in 2016 with those won by Hilary Clinton. Figure one shows counties won by each candidate and which of those are above or below the estimated statewide absentee ballot rate of 13.8%.
Of the 77 counties included in this research, Clinton won in 18 and Trump won in 59 (the vote tally was much closer since Clinton won in most of the more populous counties). Looking at Table 1, we see that the counties won by Clinton had both a higher rate of absentee-by-mail voting in 2016 and a larger increase in absentee ballot requests from 2016 to 2020. Those two factors indicate a protected 2020 absentee-by-mail voting rate of 16.8% in counties won by Clinton in 2016 and a rate of 10.25% in counties won by Trump in 2016.
The usual caveats with research like this apply: the counties not included in this data could be very different than the other counties and this is just one moment in time. We could have different projections in the future, up or down, based on new data.
However, one thing has remained constant since I last reported on absentee-by-mail ballot projections on June 11; there is still no data that indicates that absentee-by-mail will be anywhere near the 30-40% range predicted by the State Board of Elections. If the SBE and county boards plan to conduct the 2020 general election based on those projections, they risk misallocating resources, potentially causing long lines and chaos for in-person voting.