RALEIGH, N.C. -- Shirley Dixon-Mosley had never sent a ballot through the mail. She always treasured casting her ballot in person. But for November's election, she voted early and by mail because she didn't want to take any chances.
"I want to make sure my vote got in and it counted," said the 75-year-old retired teacher's aide in Charlotte, N.C.
Black voters are among the least likely to vote by mail nationally, but there are early signs they are changing their behavior as the shadow of the coronavirus hangs over the presidential race. The evidence is clearest in North Carolina, the first state in the nation to send out mail-in ballots and where voting has been underway for almost three weeks.
In North Carolina, Black voters cast 16.7% of the more than 173,000 ballots returned so far, a jump from the 9% of mail votes cast by Black voters in 2016. They are 21% of North Carolina's registered voters.
"They're changing their dynamics," said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in North Carolina who tracks state elections. "It seems like there's a shift going on which will certainly help Democrats."
But the numbers also come with a warning sign. North Carolina's Black voters are four times more likely than whites to have their ballots not yet accepted due to missing witness information. Just under 5% of absentee ballots returned by Black voters either still have missing witness information or are in the process of having ballot requirements corrected, compared with just 1.3% of ballots returned by white voters.
Alarmed by the not-accepted figures, Democratic-leaning groups are already shifting their messaging to help Black voters resolve the witness requirements. North Carolina made this process easier on Tuesday, settling a lawsuit from the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans seeking to ease absentee guidelines on the state's witness component.
County boards of elections now mail an affidavit for a voter to return to resolve ballot problems. Both Republicans on the state's five-person Board of Elections resigned after the settlement.
"There's been a big push to get Black voters to use the option of vote-by-mail," said Adrianne Shropshire of VoteBlackPac, one of several groups trying to boost the use of mail-in ballots among Black voters. The group sent absentee ballot applications to 400,000 North Carolina voters. "The problems that people are having is related to the fact that this is new to people."
Jeffrey Brooks, a 49-year-old Democrat from Durham, said he's previously voted in person. But when he sent in his mail-in ballot earlier this month, he failed to have a family member sign it as a witness.
"I didn't know that," Brooks said. "I thought it was just for young people. I didn't get them to sign it because I did it at home. I didn't know you had to have a witness."
The North Carolina Democratic Party and Democratic nominee Joe Biden's campaign have established hotlines for confused voters. Both groups also have volunteers working on the ground to help people remedy witness issues.
Tonya Foreman, an activist whose group CAREE has been registering people to vote in barbershops and a pop-up registration tent in the eastern part of the state, worries that some Black voters, already deeply suspicious of a system they see as rigged against them, "will just decide 'I knew it' and not fix their ballots."
Foreman has seen shifts in Black voters' interest and trust in voting by mail, saying it seemed high last spring but then tapered off after controversy over mail delays due to changes at the Postal Service.
Black voters have traditionally preferred to vote in-person and see their ballot being accepted. In 2018, only 11% of African American voters cast their ballots by mail compared with 24% of white voters, according to the U.S. Census.
But Black people have been disproportionately killed by the coronavirus, and many older Black Americans are now trying to balance safety with their rights, said Marcus Bass, an activist with the group Advance Carolina.
"The most faithful bloc of voters are older Black voters," Bass said.
Bryan Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.