The 2020 general election started Friday as North Carolina began sending voters absentee ballots to choose between President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden and to vote in a critical U.S. Senate race, a gubernatorial contest and a slew of congressional and state legislative contests.

North Carolina election officials will send out 643,400 absentee ballots. That number represents an unprecedented increase in absentee ballot requests, up from just 38,871 at the same point in the 2016 election cycle.

The surge is a result of the still uncontrolled spread of the novel coronavirus, the once-in-a-century pandemic that prompted a nationwide shutdown in March and has killed at least 180,000 Americans.

It’s important that voters will cast their ballots two months out from the election because Trump and his Republican Party are currently struggling in the polls.

In North Carolina, Biden led Trump by 2 percentage points in a Monmouth University poll and by 4 percentage points in a Fox News poll, both released on Thursday. The Fox News poll also found Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) trailing Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham. (Polls measure only a snapshot in time and are not a prediction of the future, but they can tell us how voters feel right now ― just as voting starts.)

Friday was the first day of the final two months of a bizarre election cycle taking place during a deadly pandemic that has delayed or dramatically reduced most normal in-person campaigning, including large rallies and door-knocking.

It is also an election the president of the United States has explicitly attempted to undermine at every turn.

A load of absentee ballots is loaded onto a truck for mailing at the Wake County Board of Elections in North Carolina ThursdaASSOCIATED PRESS A load of absentee ballots is loaded onto a truck for mailing at the Wake County Board of Elections in North Carolina Thursday.

Trump has repeatedly said without evidence that the election will be “rigged” and “fraudulent.” He falsely argued that mailed absentee ballots are “corrupt.” He admitted opposing new funding for the U.S. Postal Service in order to disrupt the delivery of mailed ballots. He threatened to deploy law enforcement officials to polling places. He declined to answer when asked if he will honor election results and leave office if he loses. Most recently, he called for his supporters to vote twice, which is a felony.

“It is illegal to vote twice in an election,” said Karen Brinson, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, in a statement Thursday after Trump told his supporters to do just that.

Trump’s arguments against absentee voting appear to be working to his detriment. In North Carolina, Republicans were far less likely to request absentee ballots than Democrats. Registered Democrats requested 337,362 absentee ballots as of Friday, while registered Republicans requested just 103,620, according to the Board of Elections. Independent voters requested 200,359 ballots.

North Carolina is the first state to send out absentee ballots for the 2020 general election, but more will follow soon.

Voters in Kentucky will begin to receive their requested absentee ballots on Sept. 14. That same week, voters in 19 states will start to receive theirs, including those in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Early voting also begins this month, starting with Minnesota on Sept. 18.

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