News about how the pandemic will alter the upcoming election changes by the minute, but you can get a rock-solid primer on North Carolina voting processes from expert Robert Joyce.
The Well talked with Joyce, the Hinsdale professor of public law and government in the School of Government, who pays close attention to the law and administration of elections in North Carolina. Joyce provided lots of background on election procedures and insights into the legal developments that people should know as they prepare to vote.
How has North Carolina adjusted election procedures during the pandemic?
Let me start with how we vote in North Carolina.
Voters have an option of three ways to vote. One is in person at the voter’s precinct on election day. The second way is in person, usually called early voting. For a couple of weeks before election day, each county board of elections across the state sets voting places in the county where any county resident can go, irrespective of their home precinct, and cast a ballot during the early voting period.
The third way is absentee voting by mail. In 2020 there is a concern that, with the coronavirus, a significant number of voters may be reluctant to go to their precinct on election day or to go to an early-voting site. Those voters would rather vote by mail.
What percentage of votes usually are cast through the three methods?
Typically, in a statewide or even-year election, something like 4% of all ballots cast are absentee by mail. In contrast, something like two-thirds of ballots are cast at in-person early-voting sites and the remaining are cast in person on election day.
When the coronavirus took hold, the spring primary elections ahead of the 2020 November election were underway and the coronavirus was not much of an issue. But state elections officials began to realize, as many others did, that the situation could be different in November. Something maybe should be done. The State Board of Elections executive director [Karen Brinson Bell] estimated that the proportion of absentee-by-mail votes would go up from 4% to perhaps 40%. A tenfold increase anticipated in absentee-by-mail has a lot of implications for how the board of elections in each county will administer the election because of the need for manpower and what the people would be doing.
So [Bell] suggested to the General Assembly that there should be changes, and the General Assembly responded, not adopting all of the director’s suggestions, but adopting some. First, with respect to election-day voting and in-person early voting, the General Assembly did not make substantial changes. Because of the concern about people wanting to vote by mail, that’s where the changes were focused.
What is the process for absentee voting by mail?
A couple of decades ago, the General Assembly did away with a requirement that you had to have a qualifying reason to vote by absentee ballot. The purpose of absentee voting originally was to accommodate people who, because of illness or disability, couldn’t get to the polls or because on election day they would be away from the county.
Now, you can vote absentee by mail for any reason just because you want to. It’s known as no-excuse absentee voting.
First, you have to request a mail-in ballot by filling out a request form produced by the state, then send it to the county board of elections. Once they get your request form, if it’s in proper order, you will receive the ballot that you’re entitled to, along with an envelope that you return the ballot in. The return envelope has places to certify that you are a properly registered voter and for a witness to certify that you are the one marking your ballot.
After receiving a ballot, you mark it with a witness watching you fill out your ballot, and you send the whole thing back to the county board of elections. They then make sure what you sent meets statutory requirements. They will take that ballot out of the envelope and count it just like a ballot cast at an early-voting in-person site or in-person voting on election day.
What are some of the biggest changes due to the coronavirus pandemic?
There’s no great earthshaking stuff here. These are incremental. The first change was that county boards of elections can email the request form to a voter. You can call the county board and ask them to email it to you, or you can send them an email and they will respond with the form attached.
A slightly larger change that the law requires for 2020 is that the State Board of Elections is to set up an online web portal. They say it will be in place by August 27, and then you go to the website, find the request form and even fill it out right there electronically. The state board would make the form available to the appropriate county board for further action.
Next, the voter returns the request form; traditionally that was either mailed in or hand delivered to the county board. And it’s still perfectly viable for the voter to hand deliver it. Or a statutorily defined close relative can do it. New for 2020, the request can be emailed to the county board, or it can be submitted through the new web portal. However it’s sent, it has to get back to the county board by 5 p.m. on the Tuesday before the election, which this year is October 27.
After submitting a request for a mail-in ballot, what changes should voters expect?
The county board of elections will send you an absentee ballot and the required certificate through the mail beginning September 4. A 2020 change is that on the envelope in which voters will return the ballot, there will be a bar code so that county boards of elections and voters can both track the ballot’s status, just like you can do with a package being sent by FedEx.
Before 2020, voters were required to have two witnesses see that the voter himself or herself is, in fact, the one filling out the ballot. Witnesses were not to see actually how the ballot was marked, just that this was the person filling it out. For 2020, the number of required witnesses drops to one. A lot of people think that is the most significant change, making it easier, presumably, for a person to mark and return an absentee ballot.
I think it’s the most significant change because all the others are sort of incremental. It’s commonsensical. We think there are a lot of people who live alone, right? People in various circumstances who might simply find it much easier to get one witness than to get two. Plus, during a pandemic, if you feel under threat by COVID-19 and you don’t want to have direct contact with people unnecessarily, then reducing the number of witnesses from two to one person halves the number of people you’re exposed to.
The state board clearly says that the witness has to be able to see the voter, not how the voter is marking the ballot. The voter could be indoors and the witness outside, as long as the witness can clearly see.
Are there any new options for submitting a completed ballot?
There is no change for 2020. It can be sent by mail, FedEx or similar service or be brought to the county board of elections in person or by a close relative.
The ballot can also be taken to an early-voting site, but it cannot be taken to the polls on election day. It must be received by the voter’s county board of elections by 5 p.m. on election day. The polls actually close later than that, but absentee ballots must be received by 5 p.m. that day, with one exception. If the return envelope containing the ballot has a postmark showing that it was posted by 5 p.m. on election day, and it is received within the next three days, it will be taken.
Will operations change for early voting and election-day polling?
Yes. There have always been rules about who the officials can be at precincts. The rules were designed so that the chief judge and the judges of elections are not all of one party or the other.
A requirement that precinct officials must be residents of the precinct — the idea being that they could spot problems with voters coming from outside a precinct — has been loosened for 2020. Chiefly, it’s with respect to residence so that officials don’t necessarily have to be from the precinct itself, but from anywhere in the county, in recognition of possible increased difficulty this year in getting precinct officials to agree to work.
This year, it’s anticipated that it may be harder to find precinct officials, especially in light of the fact that precinct officials have been proportionately older. But older folks are the ones who may have the greatest concerns about exposure. It’s always a challenge for the county boards to find precinct officials. It’s extremely low pay, extremely long days.
The North Carolina legislature appropriated funds for counties to use for additional elections expenses. How will those funds be used?
The General Assembly approved the distribution of extra funds to the counties to make up for, at least to some extent, additional expenses they will have. The statute authorizes the State Board of Elections to allocate funds based on each county’s economic health and its number of registered voters. I asked the state elections director how the money is being spent. She said on these items:
- Increased postage. If you’re going to send out 10 times as many absentee ballots as you have in the past, it will cost you 10 times as much in postage.
- Printing and ordering new absentee-by-mail ballots, envelopes and materials since the witness requirement changed and materials were made more user-friendly.
- Hazard or bonus pay for poll workers. Some counties are using extra money as an inducement to attract workers.
- Temporary staff to help with increase in absentee by mail and other preparation.
- Signage and materials for instructing voters on polling site processes like curbside voting and social distancing.
- Professional cleaning at polling sites.
Besides social distancing, what measures will protect poll workers and voters?
The State Board of Elections with State Emergency Management and the Department of Health and Human Services have coordinated personal protective equipment for election workers.
Election workers will wear face shields or masks and gloves and use disinfecting wipes and cotton swabs on the ballot-marking device. The state director says that Anheuser-Busch is providing an in-kind donation of hand sanitizer for use at polling sites and that the State Board is procuring pens for one-time use by voters. Polling sites will have barriers like you see in grocery stores at check-in and ballot distribution tables and at ballot-casting stations.
Are there any other legal developments affecting elections in North Carolina?
There have been lawsuits challenging different voting procedures. The first of those to come to a ruling was from the federal district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, a ruling that came out just a couple of weeks ago in which the plaintiffs requested a preliminary injunction against a number of things.
For instance, they wanted no witnesses at all instead of one. The judge did not grant that injunction. He did give a preliminary injunction with respect to one thing. There has been no statewide procedure in place for notifying a voter who attempted to vote absentee by mail but whose ballot was rejected and for that person to be able to challenge the rejection of the absentee ballot.
The court ruling provides that the right to vote is a fundamental right and, if the right to vote is denied in some way, denial can be done only through due process. Due process requires that the voter have an opportunity to challenge the denial. The state elections director in the hearing in that matter said that they were working to implement such a process. The injunction requires that they put it into place statewide.