Poll worker Jim Taylor checks in primary election voters at the Old Fort Wesleyan Church polling place in McDowell County on March 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press
Poll worker Jim Taylor checks in primary election voters at the Old Fort Wesleyan Church polling place in McDowell County on March 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Monday morning found Orange County Elections Director Rachel Raper stacking boxes of voting records onto pushcarts in an otherwise empty office. Her staff, whose members are all “either aged 60-plus or taking care of elderly family members,” were practicing social distancing and working from home.

COVID-19 NC news

“Every carpet square on the floor is 2 feet, so we can use that to keep 6 feet between us,” Raper said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation to keep 6 feet apart to avoid the spread of the virus that causes coronavirus disease.

The about-face is abrupt. At the end of last week, the county Board of Elections met to “canvass,” or certify the Super Tuesday election results. Other than an abundance of hand sanitizer and awkward greetings without handshakes, the meeting proceeded normally.

Raper said she was too busy preparing for election day before March 3 to follow the news of COVID-19, the new coronavirus, which had begun spreading around the world.

In the 10 days after, when the virus had arrived in North Carolina, she was too busy following up on provisional ballots, processing mail-in ballots received after election day and doing all the checks needed to make sure the final election count was correct.

She was going to figure out what to do about COVID-19 on Monday, she said.

The immediate future for county election boards

Indeed, the State Board of Elections was on the same schedule. Late Sunday night, the state board issued a “numbered memo,” or written guidance on how county boards of elections should respond to the outbreak.

The memo stated that the state executive director of elections, Karen Brinson Bell, has the power to exercise emergency powers, though no emergency powers have yet been exercised.

The memo addressed the immediate future for county boards of elections. Some have not finished the canvassing process, and some —as in Orange County — have to do recounts by Friday.

For Raper, that means she will have to call in staff to feed ballots into the scanner and have present at least two board members representing each political party to oversee the process. They will each have to stand 6 feet apart.

Public participation in election procedures could be limited to listening in or watching telephonic or livestreamed meetings. That’s not an option for the recount, Raper said, so she will have a barrier so the public cannot get close to elections staff, and public observers will attend at their own risk.

The full organization of election results, called the “30-day sort,” will also be delayed by at least another month, with additional guidance coming at the end of the week, the memo said.

This 30-day sort is used to organize ballots submitted absentee-by-mail or during early one-stop voting. While counties already have the total votes cast, they now need to organize the often tens of thousands of paper ballots by precinct so the state can report detailed numbers of which candidates earned votes with which method in which precinct.

That is an intensive process that will require more than just the county directors working alone in an office with boxes full of ballots.

The medium-term election future for North Carolina

As it stands, the only runoff election in the state is still set for May 12.

Two Republicans — Lynda Bennett and Madison Cawthorn — are running in the second primary for the U.S. House District 11 seat, still scheduled for May 12. The winner will face the Democratic nominee, Moe Davis, in November.

The deadline for counties to fulfill absentee-by-mail requests for that election is approaching rapidly, on March 28. If those elections are to be delayed, as elections have been delayed around the country, that decision will likely come before ballots are distributed.

The long-term election outlook for North Carolina

Much is unknown about the November elections.

How those elections will be conducted remains unknown and depends on how well COVID-19 is contained in the coming months. The State Board of Elections has dedicated a webpage to how the virus will impact election offices going forward.

Last Thursday, the state board issued a press release stating that its staff is drafting recommendations to the General Assembly that “may include amending requirements for absentee-by-mail voting and steps to ensure an adequate number of poll workers are available.”

People over 60 years old are more susceptible to COVID-19 and have higher mortality rates than children through middle-age adults. Most poll workers in North Carolina are in that high-risk age group. This could lead to a shortage of volunteers to act as poll workers in November, as older folks stay home to protect their health.

Additionally, the process for requesting and filling absentee ballots would likely be too onerous under any kind of social distancing or quarantine conditions, Raper said. Under current rules, for example, absentee ballots require either a notary or two eligible adults to witness the ballot. With social distancing, it is unlikely that voters will have those two adults in their home or have access to a notary public.

The chairman of the State Board of Elections, Damon Circosta, recognized the evolving state of affairs in an email he sent Friday to the state board staff and his fellow board members. In it, he recognized that every board member is a political appointee and he called for trust among members, the professional elections staff, and other state and federal agencies.

“It is impossible to know what specific actions we will need to take in response to this situation,” Circosta wrote. “In a fluid and dynamic environment, the particulars can change rapidly.”

The goal, he wrote, is to ensure “that the will of the people is transmitted into our government via the secure and accessible conduct of elections.”

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Jordan Wilkie is a former Report for America corps member and former reporter at Carolina Public Press. To reach the newsroom, email us at news@carolinapublicpress.org.

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