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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.
Jim Mone
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."

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Hansi Lo Wang
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a correspondent for NPR reporting on the state of U.S. democracy, including the election process, voting rights and the census.