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Trump or Biden? Voters in North Carolina could pick as soon as next month

The first absentee ballots of the 2020 general election are soon being mailed to voters in key states.
Elections administrator Jon Martin runs newly received ballots through a machine that opens them and stamps the date they were received at Minneapolis Elections & Voter Services in Minneapolis on Wednesday.Glen Stubbe / Star Tribune via AP

The first ballots of the 2020 general election will be on their way to voters in exactly one month.

North Carolina, a battleground state, begins mailing absentee ballots to registered voters who requested them on Sept. 4, a full 60 days before Election Day on Nov. 3.

Pennsylvania and Kentucky will follow, sending out requested mail ballots as early as Sept. 14, with several other key states following the same week, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Wisconsin will start sending ballots out Sept. 17, and Minnesota will begin posting ballots Sept. 18. Michiganders will start getting their absentee ballots the following week, and they can cast early ballots in person at their county clerks' offices starting Sept. 24.

The expanded use of mail-in voting — which is designed to keep people from congregating at the polls and possibly transmitting the coronavirus, which spreads through in-person contact — has created an extended voting season that could have political ramifications for a president who is trailing in the polls, with voters making their decisions well before the final days of the race.

"This election isn't in three months — it starts in 30 days," said Austin Cook, communications director of the North Carolina Democratic Party. "That's why Donald Trump is running scared and lashing out against voting by mail."

In total, 23 states will begin sending out ballots 45 or more days before the election. The ballots will be processed on a rolling basis until each state reaches its cutoff deadline, which is usually several days before Election Day. In 10 states, however, the deadline for voters to send back completed ballots is more than a week before Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In North Carolina, Joe Biden is polling 4.5 percentage points ahead of Trump, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. The state has been a key battleground in the past, with Barack Obama eking out a win in 2008. Trump won it by 4 points in 2016, according to NBC News results.

State sources said the pandemic has upended normal political organizing, replacing it with voter education campaigns, often focused on the mechanics of mail-in voting.

"We're replacing kissing babies and pressing flesh with voter education about process and about how to vote and when to vote," said Chris Cooper, a politics professor at Western Carolina University. He said absentee ballot requests in North Carolina are six times higher than they were at this time four years ago.

Cooper said Democrats lead in ballot requests so far, which he suspects is because the president has spent recent months denigrating mail-in voting and claiming, without evidence, that voting by mail leads to fraud.

"It's hard to turn out the vote by mail when the president is telling you that vote by mail is not reliable," he said. "The Republican Party in North Carolina is trying to thread the needle."

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Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist, said he believes most voters have already made up their minds — whether they vote now or in November. Elections are won over the long term, he said; it's not just about potential late-in-the-game revelations, known as October surprises.

"For most people, I think the die is already cast," Mollineau said. "I'm not saying the fall's not important, but you have to look at these elections in totality, and the work that's being done right now is as important — if not more important — as what might or might not happen in the fall."

And while more voters are expected to cast their ballots early, it could take days or weeks for Americans to know who won the election, because many states will not count mail-in ballots until Election Day or after.

Voting rights advocates and election officials are encouraging voters to request and return mail-in ballots as early as possible to make sure they arrive on time. Lateness is the No. 1 reason absentee ballots are rejected in American elections, with tens of thousands of ballots having already been rejected in this year's primaries.