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A Look At Whether This Year's Mail-In Voting Habits Will Stick

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Despite President Trump's claims to the contrary, experts say the 2020 election was a feat of democracy; the highest turnout election in more than 100 years during a pandemic. States across the country expanded their voting options this year, which means they'll have to decide which of those options to keep going forward. Joining us now to talk about that is NPR's Miles Parks, who covers voting. Hey, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So now that we've had a couple weeks' distance, I mean, how dramatically would you say voting changed this year to accommodate the pandemic?

PARKS: It changed a lot. You know, there were only five states across the country that didn't do anything to make voting easier as a result of the pandemic. You know, between mail voting and early voting, estimates at this point are that around 100 million voters voted before Election Day, which will probably be around 60% of the total votes cast. That's way up from the 40% it was in 2016.

CHANG: Right. I mean, overall, there was a historic turnout. Almost 160 million people voted overall this year. Do you think these changes will stay in place for future elections?

PARKS: It's the big question that no one knows the answer to at this point. You know, voting rules are determined at the state level. So it's going to be kind of interesting to watch all of these individual statehouses debate, you know, how many of the changes to keep going forward. I'll say this much - election experts that I've talked to say it's really hard to give voters an option to make voting easier and then take it away. I talked to Jennifer Morrell, who's an elections consultant and a former local election official.

JENNIFER MORRELL: Voters, people in general, have busy lives, they work different schedules. I think suddenly when you give them the opportunity to vote in a way that is convenient, I think they do want to see that become the status quo.

PARKS: Morrell actually has experience with just this situation. When she was a local administrator in Utah, they offered an all-mail option for just a single special election. And then when they didn't do it for the next election, she got a bunch of calls at her office from voters.

MORRELL: You mailed me a ballot over the summer. Why didn't I get one now? And there were enough calls that we took note, meaning it, you know, wasn't just a couple; it seemed to be pretty regular.

PARKS: Just a few years later, the entire state of Utah is now an all-mail ballot state, for what it's worth.

CHANG: (Laughter) Interesting. Well, you know, usually Democrats are the ones who are in favor of expanding access to different voting options. How are Republicans feeling about all these changes?

PARKS: It's hard to tell since so much of the oxygen so far has been taken up by President Trump's false claims about voting. But honestly, those two things aren't completely disconnected. Morrell told me she's really worried that this constant false fraud narrative that the Trump campaign is pushing could affect whether Republicans in state governments are willing to allow more vote-by-mail next year, for instance.

I talked to Representative Rodney Davis, who's the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee that's tasked with voting issues in Congress. And he feels a lot of the changes that happened this year were aimed at helping Democrats under the guise of pandemic response.

RODNEY DAVID: We saw COVID being used in certain states really to politicize the election process and nuclearize procedures that were used for a partisan gain.

PARKS: He's OK with voters requesting absentee ballots, but he doesn't want states mailing ballots to all registered voters. It's very possible other Republicans nationwide take a similar stance.

CHANG: Well, how much do you think a Biden presidency will affect changes to voting going forward?

PARKS: I talked to Senator Amy Klobuchar about that this week and asked her exactly that. And overall, she said the same thing as Morrell. Here she is.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: We've seen a huge transformation toward mail-in voting, and a lot of people aren't going to want to give up that convenience even when there's not a pandemic.

PARKS: The bottom line here is just how much access are Republicans nationwide going to allow, and how much is President Trump's rhetoric going to affect that answer?

CHANG: That is NPR's Miles Parks. Thank you, Miles.

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