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Who’s Requesting Mail Ballots in Georgia’s Upcoming Primary?

Analyzing absentee ballot request data reveals significant racial, age, and party disparities.

Last Updated: June 10, 2020
Published: May 19, 2020

Please see the update at the bottom of this page for the final mail ballot request figures.

Geor­gi­a’s pres­id­en­tial primary is currently sched­uled for June 9 after the state post­poned it twice due to the pandemic. In addi­tion to the pres­id­en­tial and local primar­ies, Geor­gi­ans will vote for two seats on the state’s supreme court.

As the state and its voters prepare for the upcom­ing elec­tion, one thing is abund­antly clear: mail voting will play a much larger role in this year’s primary than it ever has in Geor­gia. In late April, all registered voters in the state were sent mail ballot request forms. Accord­ing to data from the secret­ary of state, as of May 19, the state had processed nearly 1.5 million absentee ballot requests. In 2016’s pres­id­en­tial primary, only 45,000 Geor­gia voters had reques­ted absentee ballots. To put those numbers in context, 21.4 percent of registered voters in Geor­gia have already reques­ted a mail ballot for the 2020 primar­ies, whereas it was under 1 percent in the 2016 primar­ies.

Our analysis of the absentee ballot data in Geor­gia indic­ates that as of today, there are real racial, age, and party dispar­it­ies in the state as to who is request­ing mail ballots. There are, however, some import­ant caveats to the analysis that follows.

First, many applic­a­tions have yet to be processed as county elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors deal with the deluge of requests. Applic­a­tions that are submit­ted, but not yet processed and accep­ted, will not be reflec­ted in these numbers. This back­log could be obscur­ing trends in request rates. foot­note1_xtsqg2d 1 To be clear, there are currently large racial dispar­it­ies within Geor­gi­a’s five largest counties, so a further area of inquiry is whether any back­log is being evenly distrib­uted. Never­the­less, a processing back­log is concern­ing in its own right, espe­cially as we get close to an elec­tion. Further analysis should be performed after the back­log is cleared.

Second, it is also possible that these trends would shift some natur­ally in the coming weeks. In 2016, for instance, our analysis shows that Demo­crats reques­ted their mail ballots slightly later than Repub­lic­ans (though they never reached parity).

Finally, these trends can change. Indeed, we believe and hope that the dispar­it­ies can be reduced in response to mobil­iz­a­tion strategies, public educa­tion, and policy changes. 

Given these unique features, it is unclear how much the Geor­gia exper­i­ence reveals about mail ballot usage in other states.

Who has reques­ted mail ballots? foot­note2_xiuh1q1 2 Again, applic­a­tions that are submit­ted, but not yet processed and accep­ted, will not be reflec­ted in the analysis. As such, when this analysis refers to a “reques­ted” mail ballot, a more tech­nical under­stand­ing would be a request that has been submit­ted, processed, and accep­ted.

The data to date shows that 25.4 percent of white foot­note3_cwqqd8t 3 For this analysis, we use voter file data from L2 Polit­ical and absentee ballot data from the Geor­gia Secret­ary of State. L2 estim­ates voters’ racial/ethnic char­ac­ter­ist­ics, as well as their party affil­i­ation, based on commer­cial and public data. voters have reques­ted mail ballots, while just 17 percent of Black voters and 11.2 percent of Latino voters have reques­ted these ballots.

There are also major discrep­an­cies in age and party: statewide, 44.7 percent of voters 65 and older have success­fully reques­ted mail ballots already — but barely 9 percent of voters under the age of 40 have done so. Substan­tially more Repub­lic­ans have reques­ted mail ballots than Demo­crats. See the figure below.

Graph of percent of Georgia voters who have requested mail ballots. Bren­nan Center

A map of the counties makes clear that many voters in some parts of the state have reques­ted mail ballots, while others are lagging. In Fulton County — the state’s largest and home to Atlanta — just 15.2 percent of registered voters had reques­ted mail ballots as of May 19. In the figure below, we also show Geor­gi­a’s five largest cities for geograph­ical refer­ence.

Map of percent of Georgia voters who have requested mail ballots. Bren­nan Center

Who is request­ing mail ballots for the first time?

Some of this can be explained by long­stand­ing patterns: older voters and white voters, for instance, gener­ally use mail-ballot­ing options more than younger and nonwhite voters. We would there­fore expect to see higher request rates from these voters, even if no one was chan­ging their beha­vior. But we are also inter­ested in who is turn­ing to mail voting after not using the option in past elec­tions.

To under­stand which voters are shift­ing their beha­vior, we limit the follow­ing analyses to voters who were eligible to vote in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial primary but did not request a mail ballot. By look­ing at the beha­vior in 2020 of voters who could have voted by mail in 2016, but chose not to, gives us insight into how voters’ beha­vior is chan­ging in the Peach State this year.

More than one out of every four voters who did not request a mail ballot in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial primary has done so in 2020. foot­note4_mk8gc2t 4 Geor­gia does not have a perman­ent vote-by-mail option, so each voter has to make a request for each elec­tion. These analyses do not mean­ing­fully change when we exam­ine the 2020 beha­vior of voters who did not vote by mail in the 2018 primary elec­tion.  Once again we see major racial discrep­an­cies: 29 percent of white voters who didn’t request a mail ballot in 2016 have done so to date, while just 20.8 percent of Black voters have done so. This figure drops to just 15.1 percent for Latino voters.

Graph of percent of Georgia voters who did not request mail ballot in 2016 who already have in 2020. Bren­nan Center

Not only are white voters more likely to use mail voting over­all, but this data from Geor­gia also indic­ates that white voters who did not use mail options in 2016 are switch­ing their beha­vior at higher rates than nonwhite voters. The same is true for Repub­lican voters: 32.7 percent of Repub­lic­ans who did not vote by mail in 2016 have already reques­ted a mail ballot this year, while 25.2 percent of such Demo­crats have done so. As the figure demon­strates, older voters are also shift­ing at far higher rates than younger voters.

Once again, we see evid­ent geographic clus­ter­ing. In Fulton County, just 18.6 percent of registered voters who did not request a mail ballot in 2016 have success­fully done so this year. That number rises to more than one in three in 16 smal­ler counties.

Map of percent of Georgia voters who did not request mail ballot in 2016 who already have in 2020. Bren­nan Center

Conclu­sion

Elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors and advoc­ates in Geor­gia should be mind­ful of the dispar­it­ies in mail ballot requests by taking three related steps:

  1. Aggress­ively educate the public about the avail­ab­il­ity of vote by mail, with a specific emphasis in communit­ies that are most at risk from Covid-19 or tradi­tion­ally have low-usage rates of vote by mail. Report­ing makes clear that the COVID-19 crisis in Geor­gia is concen­trated in communit­ies of color — communit­ies that are request­ing mail ballots at lower rates than white communit­ies.
  2. Alloc­ate suffi­cient resources to process mail ballot requests. As we approach the Geor­gia contest and the Novem­ber elec­tions, delays in processing will reduce the amount of time voters have to complete and mail their ballots.
  3. Ensure that suffi­cient numbers of safe and sanit­ary polling places remain open on Elec­tion Day. The data so far indic­ates that some voters are disin­clined to use vote by mail. We must there­fore ensure that voters who will not vote by mail still have an oppor­tun­ity to have their voices heard.

Update on 6/10/2020

We reran this analysis the day after the Geor­gia primary to see if our find­ings held in the final weeks lead­ing up to the elec­tion. We found that very little had changed from three weeks ago: white voters, Repub­lic­ans, and older voters all ulti­mately reques­ted absentee ballots at substan­tially higher rates than other groups. Although some of this can be explained by general turnout patterns in primary contests, the differ­ences are large.

Bar graph of Georgia voters who requested mail ballots. Bren­nan Center

These same groups were also more likely to trans­ition to mail ballots after not using the option in 2016. Among Black voters who could have used vote by mail in 2016 but did not, 23.5 percent reques­ted absentee ballots this year. That share for white voters, however, was 30.8 percent.

Bar graph of Georgia voters who did not request mail ballot in 2016 who did so in 2020. Bren­nan Center

We do not yet know what share of indi­vidu­als who actu­ally voted in each group voted by mail versus in person but will publish that inform­a­tion shortly after it becomes avail­able.

End Notes