The 2020 general election has begun with North Carolina becoming the first state to start mailing out absentee ballots on Friday, two months before Election Day.
Other states will begin doing the same over the next few weeks in an election that's expected to break all records in the number of ballots cast early and by mail. Minnesota will be the first state to offer early in-person voting starting Sept. 18, with many states following not long afterward.
Most analysts believe that at least half the electorate will vote by mail or early in person, largely because the pandemic has made many voters reluctant to show up at potentially crowded polling places on Nov. 3.
Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, had one request as the balloting begins.
"What we do need to ask of our voters is to be patient," Bell said Thursday. "This is unprecedented, the number of absentee by mail requests that we have received." She said the ballots will be sent out on a "rolling" basis.
North Carolina has logged more than 643,000 requests already, far outstripping previous years. By this time in 2016, fewer than 39,000 North Carolinians had asked for an absentee ballot.
Almost every state is seeing a similar surge in demand. Georgia officials report that so far almost 800,000 voters have requested absentee ballots for the fall, compared with about 55,000 at this time four years ago.
In Maine, 120,000 voters have already asked for absentee ballots, and the number is expected to quadruple.
In most states, the requests are skewing Democratic as party leaders and campaigns encourage voters to get their requests in early to avoid having their ballots tied up in the mail and potentially arriving too late to be counted.
In North Carolina, 337,362 Democrats requested ballots as of Friday, compared with 103,620 Republicans and 200,359 unaffiliated voters. Other states are seeing similar patterns.
"At this early stage in the reporting on likely turnout, it seems Democrats are poised to dominate the vote among those ballots cast before Election Day. Likely by margins the likes of which we have never seen," Tom Bonior, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, reported this week.
Still, it's too soon to tell how many of these ballots will eventually be returned and counted. Last month, NPR reported that more than 550,000 mail-in ballots were rejected in presidential primaries this year due to mistakes and missed deadlines.
Election observers attribute the partisan disparity in ballot requests in part to President Trump's repeated allegations that mail-in voting invites widespread fraud despite the lack of evidence that this is the case and the fact that the president and first lady vote absentee.
Trump has changed his tune slightly in recent weeks, distinguishing between absentee voting that requires a voter to request a ballot — which he says is good — and states that are planning to send out absentee ballots to all registered voters — which he has said will lead to the most "rigged" election ever.
But only nine states and the District of Columbia plan to send ballots directly to all their voters, and the president continues to criticize mail-in voting in others, leading some Republican operatives to complain it's discouraging their supporters from requesting ballots.
Trump further muddled his message this week, suggesting that people in North Carolina test the security of the system by mailing in their ballots, then showing up at the polls to vote to see if their votes would be counted. Voting twice in North Carolina, as elsewhere, is a felony, and his suggestion drew widespread rebuke from election officials around the country.
The president tried to walk back those comments slightly, tweeting Thursday that people should mail their ballots in as early as possible and then go to the polls to see if their vote had been counted yet. If not, they could then vote, he said.
But that led North Carolina's Bell to warn that people showing up to check on the status of their ballots could lead to long lines and delay at the polls on Election Day and cause unnecessary confusion and health risks.
She noted that North Carolina, as well as a number of others states, now allows voters to track the status of their mail-in ballots online.
Disagreements over absentee voting have led to dozens of lawsuits around the country, with Democrats pushing to loosen the rules and Republicans trying to tighten them or keep existing restrictions in place. These court battles have further confused the process, with many election officials awaiting court rulings before they can start sending out absentee ballots.
On Wednesday, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee filed its latest lawsuit against Montana Gov. Steve Bullock for his directive allowing counties to conduct the November elections entirely by mail if they choose.
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel called the move a "power grab" by Bullock, a Democrat who is also running for Senate, and said the directive "invites fraud, manipulation and chaos." Republicans have made similar claims in other lawsuits that changes in mail-in voting are unconstitutional because they threaten the integrity of the voting process.
Bullock responded in a statement that "voting by mail in Montana is safe, secure and was requested by a bipartisan coalition of Montana election officials to reduce the risk of COVID-19 and keep Montanans safe and healthy."
Democrats fear that Trump is intentionally trying to undermine confidence in the voting process so he can challenge the results in November if they're unfavorable to him.