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Absentee-Ballot Expansion Promotes Early Voting This Year

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More people are voting early than ever before - way more. At 2 1/2 weeks before Election Day, some states are already up to a third of their total turnouts from 2016. That's being driven by absentee ballot expansion all over the country because of the pandemic and a surge of in-person early voting. But not everything has gone smoothly. We've seen long lines in Georgia and Texas and tens of thousands of mistakes with mail ballots. Joining us now to talk about all of this is NPR's Miles Parks, who covers voting.

Hey, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So just how big has the early vote been this year?

PARKS: It's been huge. More than 17 million people have voted already...

CHANG: Wow.

PARKS: ...According to this database compiled by University of Florida Professor Michael McDonald. And it's hard to really overstate how unprecedented that is. You know, it's about five times as many people who had voted at the same time in the 2016 cycle. TargetSmart, this data firm that works with Democrats, has done some analysis on the initial numbers. It's been significantly more Democrats than Republicans, which isn't that surprising when you consider, you know, the sort of rhetoric President Trump specifically has used about vote by mail.

But there are also some other interesting trends. You know, we're seeing more than seven times as many African American voters at this point now as opposed to 2016, which seems to be driven by this increase in early voting access in states with higher Black populations like North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia.

CHANG: That's interesting. Well, we have been seeing pictures of these long lines at many of these early polling places. Can you talk about how smoothly the vote has been going so far?

PARKS: Yeah, there've clearly been some hiccups with in-person and with vote-by-mail options. It seems like computer problems have contributed to a lot of the in-person delays that people have seen photos of in Georgia. The database used to check people in was slowed down because of all of this traffic on the website. There were similar stories in Texas. Houston Public Media's Elizabeth Trovall spoke to a voter named Renee, who spent nearly four hours in line going to three different precincts.

RENEE: I, quite frankly, think it's a form of voter suppression. There's no way there should be a glitch on the first day of early voting- No way. And then you're going to tell me - I go to one place and they say it's the printer; I come over here and they say it's the printer. Then they say it's the main system. I've just never seen anything like this ever.

PARKS: You know, this is a tough problem for election officials. Obviously, no one should have to wait that long to vote. But we also knew the pandemic, combined with potentially historic turnout, would mean some problems for in-person voting. And lines do usually get better, I should say, after the first couple days of early voting. The wait times in Gwinnett County, Ga., for instance - which was showing waits at two, three, four hours earlier this week on its online tracker - today, when you look, it was mostly under an hour.

CHANG: Well, what about voting by mail? I mean, a lot of people have been worried about the post office handling so many ballots. Are those concerns justified so far?

PARKS: Yeah, I mean, we've seen a lot of administrative errors - reports of administrative errors with the absentee balloting. Just yesterday in Pennsylvania, Allegheny County announced that 28,000 voters got mailed the wrong ballots. But it's also important to realize scale. We're talking about thousands of ballots. But 80 million ballots have been requested nationwide. Here's former Deputy Postmaster General Ron Stroman.

RON STROMAN: Despite some of those concerns, things are going, at this point, reasonably well.

PARKS: Stroman said it's important to remember that if you're hearing about a mistake at this point in the election - like in Allegheny County, for instance - officials realize their errors early enough to send out new ballots and fix the problems.

CHANG: That is NPR's Miles Parks.

Thank you, Miles.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.