Circuit Clerk Lisa McSwain

Cullman County Circuit Clerk Lisa McSwain, far right, talks with a defendant Friday, September 18, 2015 during an outstanding fines, restitution and court (FRAC) docket at the Cullman County Courthouse. 

With all Alabamians cleared to request a general election absentee ballot in what’s been an extraordinary year for accomplishing things from a distance, the first week of ballot applications has been a busy one, both locally and throughout the state.

Cullman County Circuit Clerk Lisa McSwain said that her office already had processed close to 600 absentee applications in the ballots’ first week of availability, a marked increase in interest over what the clerk’s office sees — at least this early — in a typical presidential election year.

“As of yesterday, we’d processed 580 applications, and there’ll probably be more by today,” McSwain said Friday. “We’ve had some walk-in requests just this morning. We didn’t start sending ballots out until Tuesday, so there’s definitely been more interest than we’d usually see at this point.

For comparison, McSwain said her office sent out roughly 600 absentee ballots for the entire election cycle leading up to the party primaries held in March. In previous presidential election cycles, absentee ballot requests for the general election have numbered between 1,500 and 2,500 locally, which means that this week’s traffic already accounts for as much as a quarter of of the absentee requests the clerk’s office normally expects through entire general election cycle.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill opened the absentee voting process to all registered voters for the Nov. 3 election, offering “anyone concerned about COVID-19 to apply for and cast an absentee ballot” as polling places gear up to handle on-site voting in the era of coronavirus.

With the state loosening requirements for absentee voting because of the pandemic, the secretary of state’s office said it expects as many as 150,000 people to cast absentee ballots, as many seek to avoid standing in lines or entering crowded polling places. That’s nearly twice as many absentees as normal for a presidential race.

More than 2.1 million people voted in the presidential election four years ago in heavily Republican Alabama, and officials expect hundreds of thousands more this year for the race between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

Wednesday was the first day voters could pick up ballots in person or drop them off at county offices, and thousands more submitted ballot applications by mail early. J.D. Snoddy, absentee manager in neighboring Winston County, said his office had received about 50 absentee applications early this year. While not many compared to an urban area, the number was notable, since the county usually doesn’t see those kind of numbers this early, according to Snoddy. “As so many have said, nothing is normal this year,” he said.

McSwain said it’s a refrain she’s hearing from election managers statewide, adding that her Cullman office is equipped to handle the increased volume. “Talking to other circuit clerks across the state, we’re definitely seeing an increase all over,” she said. “But the secretary of state’s office has allowed us to add additional staff to help us with this election, so I’ve got two extra staff members who are doing nothing but working through the election.”

The deadline to submit an absentee ballot application is Oct. 29, and completed ballots have to be returned or postmarked no later than Nov. 2.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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