The rise of mail-in voting in Georgia
By: Kayla Smith, Deputy Director, Partnerships & Government Relations | Civic Nation
Last year, COVID-19 upended every facet of life and the act of voting was no exception. From the onset of the pandemic, voting rights experts began advocating for changes that would allow voters to register and cast their ballots safely and fairly in November. During the 2020 primaries, we watched as voters waited in long lines and states received an influx of absentee ballot requests, along with experiencing other technology issues. Despite the challenges we faced during the primaries, it was clear that the safest and most secure way to vote during the pandemic was to vote by mail. With Election Day 2020 behind us, it’s astonishing to look back at the record voter turnout across the country — whether it was ballots cast by mail or in person.
The city of Atlanta saw a significant increase in the amount of vote by mail ballots cast. In Georgia, a 2005 law passed saying all residents could vote by mail without a reason or excuse. Georgia is one of 35 states where any voter can request an absentee ballot. In addition to breaking early voting records, Atlanta and the entire state of Georgia saw higher turnout compared to the 2016 election and ballots that were cast by mail shattered 2016 numbers. According to When We All Vote data, in Atlanta, the percentage increase from 2016 to 2020 in ballots cast by mail was 343%. Of Atlanta’s 482,000 votes cast in total, 121,000 were cast by mail. Similarly, in the state of Georgia as a whole, the 2016 to 2020 vote by mail percentage increase was 347%.
Some demographics have traditionally relied on in-person voting rather than mailing in their ballot, like the “souls to the polls” events often held at or near Black churches that we typically see on the Sunday before Election Day. For some, physically casting your ballot in person creates a high level of trust and confidence in your vote being counted. The widespread health and safety challenges made in-person convenings more rare this year, but that didn’t deter Georgia’s diverse electorate from making sure their voices were heard through an unfamiliar method. When We All Vote data found that in Atlanta, the percentage increase in voting by mail among those aged 18–34 rose by 265%; among women it rose 333%; and among people of color, the vote by mail percentage increase was a whopping 471%.
The data is clear: young voters and voters of color were certainly motivated to cast their ballot — no matter the method.
The Data Behind Making Participation a Celebration
Although this was the most unusual of elections, that’s not to say that traditional in-person GOTV methods were thrown to the wayside. Studies conducted in 2016, 2017, and 2018 found that celebratory community events at or near polling places resulted in an average turnout increase of 2 percentage points in the precincts where they were held on election day and by 3.5 percentage points during early voting. To build momentum and excitement around early voting during the 2020 general election, When We All Vote in collaboration with More Than a Vote, World Central Kitchen (WCK), and dozens of local and national partners, came together to host over 120 socially-distanced early voting activations across the country to make sure voters had everything they needed to vote early and have fun while doing it. In Georgia, we hosted sixteen events with our local partners that boasted a total of 4,000 attendees.
What’s Next in 2021 and Beyond
While many were willing to get out the vote in person, it was clear that more Americans had voted by mail in the 2020 General Election than ever before once every vote was counted. But, after historic turnout, thee Georgia’s legislature — among a number of other states across the country — introduced and passed bills that aim to restrict voting access.That’s why When We All Vote and voting rights organizations across the country support the For the People Act, a bill currently before the Senate that is key in stopping voter suppression.This historic bill includes automatic voter registration, extends early voting to all 50 states, would make Election Day a national holiday, allows 16 and 17 year olds to pre-register to vote, and many other much needed steps to modernize our elections — like increased access to vote-by-mail, so no American has to decide between making their voice heard and earning a living, taking care of their family, or staying safe during a pandemic. If enacted, it would be the most significant voting rights and democracy reform in more than half a century.
Although the rise in voting by mail was brought about by a global pandemic, this historic change of habit allowed more Americans than ever to exercise their right to vote safely, which is something we should always celebrate. Join When We All Vote in fighting voter suppression by visiting https://www.whenweallvote.org/support-democracy/.