• Voting by mail increased in 2020, but by less than election officials anticipated
  • The proportion of ballots voted by mail will decline significantly in the 2022 election
  • The decline in mail voting will make our election more secure and ensure that more voters have their votes counted

County boards of elections start sending out absentee-by-mail (mail) ballots on September 9. In anticipation of that occasion, the progressive media outfit Cardinal & Pine, funded by a Democratic dark money political action committee, recently tweeted:

Because during the pandemic-ravaged 2020 elections, more than 1M people voted by mail in NC, a state record. Don’t expect that to change this year.

That is incorrect. Mail ballots will be a smaller proportion of votes in 2022. That decline is a good thing.

North Carolina Had an Increase in Mail Voting in 2020, but Less Than Election Officials Expected

Fears of the coronavirus caused many changes in how people did things. More people worked from home and ordered goods online, for example. For voting, that meant an increase in the use of mail ballots. 

In an April 2020 memo asking for more funds from the General Assembly, North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell stated that she expected the mail voting rate to be up to ten times higher than the regular rate:

Through these funds we can offset significant new and increased costs to the counties because of a projected 30% to 40% voter absentee-by-mail participation rate (compared to a 4% to 5% rate traditionally)

Despite that prediction, data available as early as July of that year indicated that the proportion of mail ballots would be in the 14–18 percent range. The actual proportion of mail ballots was 18 percent. 

Election officials must be accurate in projecting voting participation rates in order to direct resources appropriately to make the voting process as smooth as possible. If, for example, county elections boards plan for 40 percent of their ballots coming by mail, they might redirect staff from operating early voting sites to processing mail ballots.

We Can Expect a Precipitous Drop in Mail Voting in 2022

With Covid-19 now endemic, Americans have started returning to their normal lives. Some voters who tried “snail mail” voting for the first time in 2020 may decide to stick with it. However, we have not seen evidence that voting by mail has become the new normal for all, or even most, of those voters. So we should expect a decline in mail voting from 2020.

There is an early sign that the drop in the proportion of mail ballots from 2020 to 2022 will be precipitous indeed. There were 26,130 mail ballots counted in the May 17 primary. That was about 1.8 percent of all ballots, which aligns with the traditional 1–2 percent range for mail ballots in North Carolina primaries. Mail ballots traditionally accounted for 4–5 percent of all ballots in general elections before 2020.

The SBE will start reporting absentee ballot request data soon after the first mail ballots go out on September 9. We will then be able to compare the rate of mail ballot requests to previous elections. That comparison will likely provide further evidence that the rate of voting by mail will decrease in 2022.

Fewer Mail Ballots Is a Good Thing

A small proportion of mail ballots is good for a couple of reasons.

First, voting by mail increases the chance that your vote will not count. A search of data on the May 17 primary found that, of the 42,699 absentee ballots requested, 26,130 were returned and counted, while 812 were not counted for various reasons. That is a rejection rate of 3.01 percent. People who voted by mail had a 1-in-33 chance of their vote not counting. By comparison, and even by the strictest standard, only 0.29 percent of those who signed up for early “one-stop” voting did not have a ballot counted.

An additional 2,699 mail ballots were spoiled (with the voter presumably voting with a new mail ballot or another way), and 12,722 were not returned. 

Second, voting by mail is inherently less secure than voting in person. Since mail ballots leave the security of a voting site, those who vote by mail are more vulnerable to fraud, manipulation, or intimidation than are other voters. Even before the fraud in Bladen County that caused election officials to overturn the 2018 9th Congressional District race, officials have had to deal with mail ballot fraud across the state. Much of that fraud is done locally in small batches, such as the ballot trafficking that led to convictions in 2020 of two people for charges related to their illegal possession of 21 mail ballots in Hoke County.

The steep decline in mail voting we will likely see in this November’s election will help protect people’s votes.