Gay Ferguson, right, speaks with election official Carter Blaisdell prior to voting at the First Baptist Church of Black Mountain polling place on March 3, 2020, in Buncombe County. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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Several Western North Carolina counties are sharply cutting the number of polling places for the June 23 second primary in Congressional District 11.

The counties, as well as the state Board of Elections, are also seeking additional rule changes and funding from the state legislature for election staffing, protective gear, cleaning supplies and mail-in ballot processing.

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This situation offers a potential preview for statewide changes that could be in order if the COVID-19 pandemic is not resolved in time for the general election.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

At least four counties — Madison, Mitchell, Transylvania and Yancey — have had polling place closures approved by the state Board of Elections, with Buncombe expecting its request to be approved shortly.

Haywood County submitted an emergency plan for a stark reduction in polling places — from 29 to 11 — but will ask that it be approved only if the COVID-19 health crisis in that county significantly worsens, according to the county’s director of elections, Robert Inman.

“Please bear in mind, we’re still in April,” Inman said earlier this week.

“What happens and develops over the next several weeks, we just have to deal with as it happens. What’s happening today is absolutely no indication of what’s going to happen in days or weeks going forward.”

Both the state Board of Elections and county election directors stressed that the approved changes in polling place sites are only for the June 23 second primary, an election contest with historically low voter turnout.

Voters in the 11th Congressional District will choose between Lynda Bennett and Madison Cawthorn to be the Republican nominee. The winner will face Democratic nominee Moe Davis in November.

Polling changes will be posted in local news outlets by May 9, and notices will be mailed to all affected voters by May 23. Voting sites can also be found using the state’s voter lookup tool.

Only registered Republicans, unaffiliated voters who cast a Republican ballot in the March primary and unaffiliated voters who did not cast a ballot in the March primary are eligible to vote in the second primary.

If voters have a sample ballot for the June primary on the voter lookup tool, they are eligible. Voters can also call their county elections office.

The challenges forcing poll closings for the June election will likely still be putting pressure on counties in the fall. Madison County Election Director Kathy Ray sees a silver lining in having to run a second primary in June.

“I was thankful, actually, for the CD11 run to give us an idea for how to do things better for the general and some of the issues that may come up, you know, as we implement this for the first time,” Ray said.

The challenges are plentiful. Common polling places like schools, fire stations and nursing homes are either being used for other COVID-19 responses or are now off-limits.

COVID-19 also poses a specific threat to poll workers, who are, on average, in their mid-60s. That means that many poll workers are at high risk of health complications if they get sick with COVID-19.

Counties report poll workers dropping out due to concern for their health and expect more to quit as election day nears. Recruiting and training poll workers is a perennial problem that will now have to be solved in especially trying circumstances.

Every voter in North Carolina can request a mail-in absentee ballot, though the option has been little used by voters in the past compared with other states. Counties are expecting an increase from under 5% of voters using this option to possibly over 40% in November. It is too early to tell how many voters will use this option in June.

Such a sizable increase in mail-in ballots would be a significant cost that was not expected and therefore not budgeted for.

“If there’s a significant increase in absentee-by-mail ballots, those are funds that have to be expended,” Inman said. “We have to meet that obligation.”

Mail-in ballots also require more labor from boards of elections. Every application needs to be processed, every ballot put into an envelope and mailed. Upon return, the ballots need to be reviewed for eligibility, removed from their secure envelopes, flattened and scanned. In the many instances where there is an error on the ballot or scanning does not work, teams of election staff will need to duplicate the votes on another ballot that will then be scanned.

Most counties do not have equipment that can rapidly open or scan ballots, meaning the work will need to be done by hand. This means more staff, which means more cost. And those staff members will have to work at least 6 feet apart and somewhere the public can view the process, meaning county offices will need access to large rooms or warehouses.

This will pose a much greater problem in November, when county election offices will have to process tens of thousands more ballots than in the coming June second primary. Planning is especially difficult because elections officials simply do not know how voters will behave during the outbreak or what method they will use to vote, according to Buncombe County’s election director, Corinne Duncan.

“COVID has kind of taken away our ability to predict both turnout and how people are going to vote,” Duncan said.

Board of elections members from 10 western North Carolina counties in the 11th Congressional District sent a letter to the General Assembly requesting assistance with the June 23 second primary. They asked for rules to be relaxed around poll workers having to work in the same precinct in which they live and for the legislature to match federal funds so the counties can receive financial assistance.

In addition, Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell of the state Board of Elections sent a letter to the General Assembly asking for some law changes and for the state to match federal funds. If North Carolina puts $2,130,466 toward elections, it will receive an additional $10,947,139 from the federal government under the CARES Act, according to the letter.

That money would be used to purchase protective equipment against COVID-19 for poll workers and voters, pay facility rental and cleaning fees for larger polling places where voters can keep 6 feet of distance between them, institute remote training for poll workers and fund increased capacity for mail-in absentee ballots.

“I don’t know that there’s a county in North Carolina that does not need additional support and understanding in how we have to approach this,” Inman said.

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

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