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Voters returned nearly 64 million mail-in ballots before election day, a pandemic-driven record that is certain to make for a more complicated vote count this year but could also reshape American elections for years to come.

Today, the counting begins. But there will be major differences among battleground states in how that plays out, and potential legal challenges – particularly from the Trump campaign – are likely to further complicate the process.

Some battleground states, like North Carolina, have been processing ballots for weeks. Elections officials there expect at least 97 per cent of votes to be counted on Tuesday night. But in one of the most hotly contested states, Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign and Republican allies blocked counties from processing votes ahead of the election.

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Mail-in balloting this year doubled from 2016, and for many voters, the shift has been a revelation.

In Atlanta, Frank Casaceli ran up the stairs of a library on the Georgia State University campus on Sunday, placed his absentee ballot in an official county drop box, and quickly headed back to his parked car. At age 42, it was the first time he had ever voted.

“Usually I work 12 hours a day,” Casaceli said, explaining why he had skipped out on the polls for the past two decades. The convenience factor, driving to the drop box on a traffic-free Sunday afternoon and skipping the lines at polls, had removed a major impediment to his participation.

Casaceli voted for Trump, who has spent much of the 2020 campaign admonishing people like him, who cast their mail-in ballots in the closing days of the election. Trump returned to the issue on Monday at a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

“Get your ballots in and have them in long before the 3rd, and have them counted before the 3rd,” he said, while assailing a recent Supreme Court ruling that rebuffed his campaign’s attempt to curtail the acceptance of Pennsylvania ballots that are postmarked by election day but arrive in election offices up to three days later.

“What a ruling, what a horrible thing that they’ve done,” he said of the court. “Do you know that puts our country in danger? Do you know what can happen during that long period of time?” he said. Then, answering his own question, he said, “Cheating can happen like you’ve never seen.”

The president’s persistent claims of a rigged election, however, are baseless. But with more Democrats voting by mail than Republicans, Trump has tried to sow doubts about the process and the validity of those ballots.

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“I don’t care how hard Donald Trump tries, there’s nothing, nothing he can do to stop the people of this nation from voting, no matter how he tries,” former Vice President Joe Biden said at a rally in Pittsburgh. “Trump doesn’t want y’all voting. He doesn’t want Americans voting. He thinks only wealthy folks should vote. And when America votes, though, America will be heard.”

Five states were already largely voting by mail in the years before the pandemic: Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Utah. Now the rest of the country appears to be moving in that direction as well, notwithstanding the president’s stance, concerns that absentee votes have a higher rejection rate than in-person votes, or stories of ballots that were never delivered or went astray. (Absentee and mail-in votes are largely interchangeable terms.)

“I believe the usage of mail balloting in this election will continue a trend toward expanded mail balloting that we’ve seen across the country. In particular, states with permanent absentee ballot lists will likely see their numbers swell, which may eventually lead the way to all-mail ballot elections,” said Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.

This year’s mail-in vote totals will climb well past the nearly 64 million that election officials had recorded through Monday. Some ballots have already arrived at election offices around the country but have not yet been entered into the system. Others have been mailed, but not yet delivered.

McDonald, who tracks election statistics, says that, as of Tuesday, just over 28 million absentee ballots requested by voters had not been entered as returned to election officials. In an analysis posted on his website, he said that those ballots are rightly a concern to Democrats, but that there still may be time for many of them to be counted.

While many states require that ballots arrive at elections offices by the close of polls Tuesday, some permit extra time, as long as the ballots are postmarked by election day.

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About 15 election workers in Fulton County, home to Atlanta, were busy Monday processing ballots in a large room at the State Farm Arena – space lent to the county by the Atlanta Hawks basketball team.

Huddled around white plastic Postal Service trays containing tens of thousands of ballots, the workers were methodically opening them, placing ballots and envelopes in separate stacks, then scanning the ballots into machines resembling large printers.

While the scanning is ongoing, the actual vote tallying will not take place until after polls close, but having the ballots already scanned is a significant advantage.

By contrast, Republicans who control the Pennsylvania Legislature thwarted efforts by county leaders and the governor to begin processing mail-in ballots there, which as a result did not begin until election day.

“The legislature has refused to give counties the time they need,” said Amber McReynolds, chief executive of the National Vote at Home Institute, which advocates voting by mail, and the former head of Denver’s election system. “When the president started tweeting about vote by mail, we pretty much lost all the momentum we had with legislatures in certain states. I really wish we hadn’t had the tweeting.”

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Trump originally voiced concern in March, during an appearance on Fox & Friends, that Republicans would never be elected again if coronavirus-related voting changes championed by Democrats were enacted. Those concerns could have been the underlying reason for his subsequent repeated claims that voting by mail was vulnerable to mischief. By July, Trump was claiming that it would lead to large-scale election fraud.

Some Republicans worried that the president’s assault on mail voting had undermined efforts at both the party’s national and state levels to encourage its voters to apply for absentee ballots.

After all, it was Republicans who had pioneered a strategy during the 1980s of promoting absentee voting, focusing on Floridians who escaped to milder climates during the summer.

One advantage of the mail voting process is its convenience for people whose work schedules are busy or inflexible. Frequently they are lower-paid workers whose votes skew Democratic.

Democrats have embraced mail-in ballots in this election at a far higher rate than Republicans, according to numbers from states that report the party registration of voters.

In the battleground state of Florida, a major prize with 29 electoral votes, 2.1 million Democrats have returned mail ballots compared with 1.4 million Republicans. (Republicans in Florida lead, however, in early, in-person voting, a separate category of early voting.)

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Despite the convenience of mail voting, and the possibility that it is partly responsible for turnout increases this year, it has downsides. In every election there are votes that go uncounted because of machine malfunctions or other snafus. Research shows that those votes, known as the “undercount,” are higher when mail ballots are used.

Part of the undercount this year – a yet-undetermined number – is made up of those voters who applied for absentee ballots but did not receive them.

A Gwinnett County, Georgia, man, Patrick Boyle, had planned to cast a vote for Biden. But Boyle, who is working temporarily in the wine industry in Oregon, received his Georgia ballot on Saturday – too late to use it – even though he requested it more than a month ago.

A postal worker came to his door and delivered the ballot in a good-sized box, first requesting to see his identification.

“Everything about it was confusing,” said Boyle, 27. “The return address is some warehouse in Detroit.”

Boyle’s partner, who had requested a ballot from Fulton County, Georgia, in September, never got hers at all, he said.

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Amid Trump’s criticism of mail-in voting, he himself cast an absentee ballot this year, as he has in the past – and as have some of his supporters.

Rose Bryant, a 68-year-old retiree who attended Trump’s rally Monday in Fayetteville, said “I don’t like it” when asked about the move to broader mail-in voting, even though she and her husband have cast absentee ballots in the past. “This is how Democrats find a way to cheat.”

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