Area election officials believe the COVID-19 pandemic is driving the record number of requests for absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 general election.
They said many voters don’t feel safe going to public places during the pandemic and are wary of protection protocols with a large number anticipated at the polling sites. The law doesn’t require voters to wear masks at polling sites.
Another reason for record requests is presidential races bring out a larger percentage of voters, they say.
Morgan County Circuit Clerk Chris Priest said his office has sent out a record 2,926 ballots that were requested and, as of Wednesday afternoon, has had 1,681 returned. He said that Morgan County's previous high totals came in the 2012 general election when about 2,300 ballots were sent out and just over 2,000 ballots were returned.
“We’re still receiving ballot requests,” he said. "We should easily surpass (the number returned). We still have 20 days before the election."
Lawrence County Absentee Election Manager Sandra Ligon said her office has sent out 473 absentee ballots and 312 have been returned.
“It’s been the most we've had requested in the eight years I have been in office,” Ligon said. “There’s no doubt, most of our calls about absentee voting have been from people asking about COVID.”
Limestone County Elections Director Bobbi Bailey said as of Wednesday the county has received 3,938 applications for absentee ballots. She was unsure how many had been returned.
"In 2016, we had 2,041 absentee ballots cast (a record). In 2012, we had 1,831. So I'd be surprised if we don't surpass those numbers. There's still a lot of time for voters to apply for absentee ballots."
She said each voting machine by law can count only 2,400 ballots. "We have two machines dedicated to absentee voting and to be safe, we've ordered a third machine."
The deadline to register to vote is Monday and deadline to apply for an absentee ballot is Oct. 29.
“The absentee ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 2,” Priest said. He said hand-delivered ballots must be brought in by the actual voter no later than Nov. 2. He said his office will check the post office box at noon Nov. 3 for final absentee ballots.
“Voters aren’t allowed to bring in absentee ballots from anybody other than themselves,” he said.
The Secretary of State’s Office allows a third-party professional courier service such as United Parcel Service, FedEx and DHL as well as the U.S. Postal Service to deliver an absentee ballot to the circuit clerk’s office of each county.
Priest said some voters who requested absentee ballots likely won’t return their ballots and might decide to go to the polls the day of the election. Those votes cast will be considered provisional and the board of registrar’s office will inspect to see if that voter did send in an absentee ballot.
Secretary of State John Merrill said the 91,000-plus absentee ballots received statewide through Tuesday already have shattered the previous record of the 89,000 absentee ballots received in the 2012 general election that saw President Barack Obama reelected.
Masks not required
Kate Terry, Morgan County elections director, said wearing a mask is not required to vote. She said when people register to vote they agree they live in Alabama, are a U.S. citizen, are 18 or older, are mentally competent and must not have been convicted of certain felonies such as murder, rape, incest, sexual crime against children or treason.
“Wearing a mask is not one of those requirements,” she said. “Polling places are exempt from state or city ordinances requiring a mask. In Morgan County, you’ll be asked if you want or need a mask, but it’s your right to decline.”
Hand sanitizer, cleansing wipes, and masks will be available for voters at polling sites, the election officials said.
“Poll workers will have masks and some will have face shields,” Bailey added. “We’ve ordered 48,000 ballpoint pens so each of our voters will have their own pen.”
A heavy voter turnout is projected throughout the area as well as the state.
Terry said she is expecting about a 75% voter turnout for Morgan.
Bailey said she is anticipating voter turnout to be 70% to 75% in Limestone.
"With so many people voting absentee, it will be interesting to see how many people actually show up at the polls," she said.
Lawrence County Probate Judge Greg Dutton feels he’ll see about 55% of registered voters cast ballots.
Merrill said he is projecting a record 68% to 75% voter turnout Nov. 3.
“That will be between 2.5 million and 2.8 million registered voters casting a ballot,” he said. Merrill said the present record is 2.1 million.