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Stop thinking just about Election Day. We're in voting season now

A voter passes large signs spelling out "Vote Here" in Minneapolis in September 2016. Voters in Minnesota can start casting their ballots for this year's midterm elections on Friday.
A voter passes large signs spelling out "Vote Here" in Minneapolis in September 2016. Voters in Minnesota can start casting their ballots for this year's midterm elections on Friday.

Election Day may still be weeks away, but voting for this year's midterm elections has already begun.

North Carolina officially kicked off this voting season on Sept. 9, when — almost two months before Election Day — its county boards of elections started mailing out absentee ballots.

And on Friday, voters can start casting ballots in person in Minnesota, South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming.

These wider windows to participate in U.S. democracy come as a majority of states allow mail-in voting for all eligible voters and most states have at least two weeks of early voting.

The COVID-19 pandemic drove interest in both of those ways of voting during the 2020 elections, when, according to a U.S. Election Assistance Commission report, just 30.5% of voters cast ballots in person on Election Day — down from 58.2% in 2018 and 54.5% in 2016.

Election officials are expecting these trends to continue in many communities, leaving elections to be increasingly less about what happens on a Tuesday in November and more about what happens over the weeks earlier.

For many voters, it means that Election Day has turned into a last call of sorts.

"If you haven't taken care of it yet, don't wait any longer," says Paul Linnell, deputy elections director for the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State, about the role of Election Day in a state with a 46-day early voting period.

The longest voting season of any state is in North Carolina, where, the state's board of elections reported earlier this month, close to 53,000 voters had asked for an absentee ballot for the general election.

Given early voting patterns in North Carolina's Durham County, any bombshell news about a candidate that lands as an "October surprise" won't necessarily influence local results, says Derek Bowens, the county's elections director.

"I guess it could have an effect. But generally, in our larger, even-numbered-year elections, before Election Day, the bulk of our voters have voted," Bowens adds, noting that an "August surprise" might be a different story.

In Buncombe County, N.C., more pre-Election Day voting also means more foot traffic, phone calls and computer dings at the elections office, which hits "almost peak busyness" in September, according to Corinne Duncan, the local elections director.

"When voters vote early, that means that we have more votes that we can pre-process and audit before Election Day," Duncan adds, referencing state law that allows elections officials to start preparing absentee ballots for counting before Election Day. "That canvass period is extremely busy for us, and we use all of it to make sure that everything is audited. And so if we can push some of that forward, that really helps."

Still, in some North Carolina counties, Election Day remains the day to cast ballots for many voters, says Devon Houck, the director of the Ashe County Board of Elections who followed voting patterns during this year's primary elections.

"We did not have an excessive amount of absentee by mail. And we are an older county, but we are also a highly Republican county. And so I believe that makes a difference as well," Houck says.

Since 2020, there has been a growing difference in preference for voting by mail that falls along partisan lines. With many GOP officials targeting mail voting laws, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they prefer to cast mail ballots.

However voters choose to vote, though, Houck says for election officials, at least one thing is for sure.

"Something my friends would say to me: 'Oh, well, you only work one day a year.' And I'm like, 'No,' " Houck says with a laugh. "It takes a lot more than the public actually knows to get ready for an election." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript:

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

We're still a little over six weeks away from Election Day, but voting for the midterms has already started. As NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, we are now officially in voting season.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: In November, on a Tuesday, you're probably used to hearing this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Here we are. We made it.

KORVA COLEMAN, BYLINE: It's finally here.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: It is Election Day.

COLEMAN: It's Election Day.

MARTIN: It is Election Day.

WANG: With the rise of early voting and voting by mail, elections are increasingly less about what happens on that one day and more about what happens over the weeks before, like in Minnesota, where voters can get an absentee ballot to vote from home or at a local election office starting today and for the next 45 days.

I guess for folks who say, like, I was too busy on Election Day or I forgot about it, they have less of an excuse in Minnesota.

PAUL LINNELL: I think that's exactly right.

WANG: That's Paul Linnell.

LINNELL: And I'm the deputy elections director for the office of the Minnesota Secretary of State.

WANG: Which has been tracking why, for many Minnesotans, voting for this year's midterm elections will not take place on November 8.

LINNELL: They've got work on Election Day, other commitments, heading out of town, hunting season, a number of reasons why folks would want to vote ahead of time prior to Election Day.

WANG: And those kinds of folks aren't just in Minnesota now that a majority of states allow all eligible voters to vote by mail and most states have at least two weeks of early voting. So Linnell says another way voters can think about Election Day is...

LINNELL: It's your last call. So if you haven't taken care of it yet, don't wait any longer.

WANG: The longest voting season of any state is in North Carolina. County boards of elections there started mailing out absentee ballots on September 9, almost two months before November's Election Day. And that means any bombshell news about a candidate that lands as an October surprise won't necessarily influence the results in North Carolina's Durham County...

DEREK BOWENS: Yeah, I guess it could have an effect.

WANG: ...Where Derek Bowens is the election's director.

BOWENS: But generally in our larger, even-numbered-year elections, before Election Day, the bulk of our voters have voted.

WANG: So it needs to be, like, an August surprise.

BOWENS: Yeah, pretty much, exactly.

WANG: More pre-Election Day voting also means more foot traffic, phone calls and computer dings at the elections office in North Carolina's Buncombe County.

CORINNE DUNCAN: Our office is at almost peak busyness now, actually.

WANG: Corinne Duncan is the local director of elections here, where state law allows election officials to start preparing absentee ballots for counting before Election Day.

DUNCAN: When voters vote early, that means that we have more votes that we can pre-process and audit before Election Day. That canvass period is extremely busy for us, and we use all of it to make sure that everything is audited. And so if we can push some of that forward, that really helps.

WANG: In some counties, though, Election Day is still the day to cast ballots for many voters, says Devon Houck, the director of North Carolina's Ashe County Board of Elections, who followed voting patterns during this year's primaries.

DEVON HOUCK: We did not have an excessive amount of absentee by mail. And we are an older county, but we are also a highly Republican county. And so I believe that makes a difference as well.

WANG: Since 2020, there has been a growing difference in preference for voting by mail that falls along partisan lines, with Democrats more likely than Republicans to say they prefer to cast mail-in ballots. However voters choose to vote, though, Houck says one thing's for sure for election officials.

HOUCK: Something my friends will say to me - oh, well, you only work one day a year. And I'm like, no. (Laughter). It takes a lot more than the public actually knows to get ready for an election.

WANG: An election that, for many communities across the U.S., is increasingly a season's worth of work.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.