AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today the first ballots were mailed out for the 2020 general election. North Carolina began sending absentee ballots to hundreds of thousands of voters who have requested them so far. This is just the beginning for an election that's expected to break all records for mail-in voting and which already has been marked by controversy, confusion and legal fights.
NPR's Pam Fessler covers voting issues and joins us now. Pam, it finally begins. Can you talk about how North Carolina is doing it?
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Well, today the state is starting to fill out the many, many requests that it's received so far for absentee ballots. Like most states, North Carolina has seen a big increase in demand this year in part because many voters just don't want to go to the polls during the pandemic. Listen to these numbers. As of this morning, 643,000 North Carolinians have requested absentee ballots. And at this time in 2016, that number was less than 39,000. In fact, the numbers are so large that the election officials say they'll be sending those ballots out on a rolling basis throughout September. And yesterday, the state's election director, Karen Brinson Bell, made this request.
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KAREN BRINSON BELL: What we do need to ask of our voters is to be patient. This is unprecedented, the number of absentee-by-mail requests that we have received.
FESSLER: And, Audie, that's also the case in most other states, which will all begin sending out their ballots in the coming weeks.
CORNISH: Do we have a sense of who's requesting these ballots in terms of party affiliation?
FESSLER: Well, in most states, Democrats appear to be doing most of the requesting. Take North Carolina, for example. Almost 334,000 Democrats have requested mail-in ballots. Republican requests are about a third of that number. And we're seeing this pattern across the country, and political observers attribute this to two different things. One, there's a pretty aggressive campaign by Democrats to have their voters apply for their absentee ballots and return them as soon as possible so they don't end up getting rejected because they arrive too late. And the second thing is President Trump's repeated criticism of mail-in voting, saying it's going to lead to the most fraudulent election in history despite the lack of evidence. But the president's words appear to be scaring off Republican voters from voting by mail, and that has party operatives pretty concerned that might hurt them in November.
CORNISH: And there's been more on that front - right? - when it comes to mail-in voting just this past week.
FESSLER: That's right. Appearing in North Carolina on Wednesday, the president suggested that voters might want to test the security of the state's mail-in voting system by casting their absentee ballots first and then going to the polls on Election Day to see if they'd be able to vote in person. Well, as you probably know, voting twice is a crime. And this led election officials across the country to say no, please don't do this. The president then tried to walk it back yesterday, saying he only meant that people should go to the polls to make sure that their absentee ballot had been counted before trying to vote in person, but that also raised concerns. North Carolina officials noted that in their state, like in a lot of others, voters can check the status of their ballots online. So they said please don't come to the polls to check the status of your absentee ballot because that's only going to cause long lines on Election Day.
CORNISH: And what's the impact of all this controversy for election officials?
FESSLER: Well, it's having a big impact. I mean, I spoke to one county election director yesterday in Pennsylvania, and he said everything so much up in the air, he doesn't - he can't even print out the absentee ballot instructions yet because he doesn't know what they're going to be. Right now, both the Republican and Democratic parties are suing the state over its mail-in voting rules. Republicans want them more restrictive; Democrats want them loosened. And there's also legislation going through the state legislature right now that the governor's threatened to veto. So it's kind of a mess right now.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Pam Fessler.
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