A poll worker in Nash County scans 2020 primary election voters’ paperwork before giving them ballots at the Braswell Memorial Library polling place in Rocky Mount on March 3. Calvin Adkins / Carolina Public Press

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The mass surge of by-mail ballot requests in North Carolina is triggering a cascade of legal, political and procedural changes that is reshaping the November election. 

So far, almost 70,000 North Carolina voters have requested absentee ballots for the November election, a four-times increase over this point in 2016, according to Catawba College politics and history professor Michael Bitzer

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Among battleground states, North Carolina historically has one of the lowest rates of using vote-by-mail. Bitzer predicts that 30%-40% of votes this year will be cast by mail, compared with 5% in the 2016 election, an increase primarily driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This means that county boards of election are preparing for administrative hurdles they have never faced in a year when voter turnout is predicted to break records. 

“It’s going to be a large undertaking, one that no county in the state has ever seen,” said Durham County Director of Elections Derek Bowens.

“It’s going to take some creativity and a lot more resources than what probably have been budgeted for most counties.”

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Some consequences will be county-specific, like some small counties relying on the state Board of Elections to provide high-speed ballot scanners. Others will be statewide, or possibly even nationwide, like the possible delay in knowing the outcome of races for weeks after Election Day, including U.S. House, Senate and presidential tallies. 

Because laws and procedures rule election administration, many of the challenges that election officials will face in the fall are predictable. With five months left before Election Day — but only six weeks until ballots are mailed to voters — whether the complex web of courts, legislature, politicians, election officials and voters act in ways to minimize those challenges, or blow them out of proportion, remains to be seen. 

The results may take some time 

Voter education and expectation-setting are key to a successful election, according to election officials and voting rights activists. 

North Carolina voters are used to knowing most of their election results on election night. This year, due to the surge in by-mail voting, it may not be clear who won the election for at least 10 days — the time it will take for county election officials to process all the ballots. The process is normal, but North Carolinians have not seen this before. 

In 2020, will politicians and the voters who support them accept legitimate outcomes in the elections, or will they use confusion over normal and expected election processes to sow doubt about the results? 

President Donald Trump has tweeted misinformation about by-mail ballots for several weeks now, despite voting by mail himself, and still repeats falsehoods alleging voter fraud cost him the popular vote in the 2016 election.

North Carolina’s politicians are also laying the groundwork for voter mistrust, using accusations and hypotheticals that have little grounding in reality. 

In 2016, now-Gov. Roy Cooper defeated then-Gov. Pat McCrory by 10,277 votes. After a series of investigations, lawsuits and unsubstantiated accusations of fraud failed to materialize additional votes in his favor, McCrory conceded the race a month after the election.

In 2020, it is well within reason that North Carolina could have more than 10,000 outstanding votes to be counted after Election Day if 30% of voters choose to vote by mail, as is predicted. 

Even in a best-case scenario, where everything goes smoothly, those votes will not be counted and results won’t be reported for another 10 days — days in which politicians will know how much they are winning or losing their election by and how many of those outstanding votes they will need to gain or to hold on to power. 

How it works 

By state law, counties are required to accept absentee ballots up until 5 p.m. on the Friday after the election, as long as the ballots are postmarked for before 5 p.m. Election Day. 

Those legitimate by-mail ballots received on Election Day and the three days after are not counted — and the results are not reported — for another week after that. 

In the past, both in North Carolina and around the country, voters returned their by-mail ballots in a large wave in the final days of the election and in the few days after.

The more ballots counted after Election Day, the more likely it is that those ballots can change the ultimate outcome of the various races — for local, county and state contests. It is even possible that the presidential election could come down to ballots counted after Election Day in North Carolina and other pivotal states. 

“It goes with what you’re saying that if you have a tremendous number show up, that could be a difference statewide and countywide in a particular race,” said Michael Dickerson, Mecklenburg County’s director of elections. 

The result comes down to a matter of margins. If there is a huge victory on election night in a given race, the outstanding votes will be less likely to change the outcome. But the more ballots that remain left to count, the more likely election outcomes in some close races will hang in the balance. 

This possibility is well known to elections officials, politicians and voting rights activists. Tomas Lopez, the director of the voting rights group Democracy NC, is also worried about what could go wrong. 

“I think the public should just start getting comfortable with the notion that we may not know the winners of certain races or all races on election night, whether those are local races, statewide or the presidential election,” Lopez said.

More (legitimate) delays 

County boards of elections, despite best efforts, may not be able to count all the outstanding ballots during the 10 days that the law allows them. If that happens, they can ask for an extension. 

“If, despite due diligence by election officials, the initial counting of all the votes has not been completed by that time, the county board may hold the canvass meeting a reasonable time thereafter,” state election law reads. 

A real chance exists that many counties could need an extension. By-mail ballots are onerous to process, and large counties will likely have thousands to go through, in addition to the normal postelection processes they are expected to complete. 

To review and count a mail ballot, technically called a “mail-in absentee ballot” in North Carolina, county boards of election need to review the ballot envelope to make sure all the required information is filled out, debate any questionable ballots, sort them into accepted and rejected piles, vote on their decisions, then have elections staff remove the ballots from the envelopes and scan them. 

Some ballots will not scan — like wrinkled dollar bills unusable at vending machines — and officials will need to duplicate these onto fresh ballots by three-person teams. This takes a lot of time. 

Small counties will have the benefit of reviewing fewer ballots. On the back end, though, they do not have the high-speed scanners needed to count hundreds of ballots in short order and cannot afford to buy them. Instead, all but the biggest counties will hand-feed ballots through a scanner one at a time. 

To help, the state Board of Elections bought 13 high-speed scanners that “can be deployed and used by counties across the state,” according to Pat Gannon, a state board spokesperson. That could set up a never-before-seen juggling act whereby counties use a scanner then send it off to another county. 

What could go wrong 

By-mail ballots are canceled or rejected at far greater rates than North Carolina ballots submitted in any other type of voting, especially for Black and Latinx-identified voters, according to Bitzer’s research.

A rejected ballot does not mean a voter did not ultimately get to vote, though Bitzer said his findings show that 11% of voters who requested a by-mail ballot in 2016 did not have a vote counted in that election. 

A number of administrative hurdles put a special onus on the voter and are not present in other types of voting. The obvious example is needing to mail the ballot in on time.

This year, with the U.S. Postal Service facing budgetary shortfalls before COVID-19 further complicated mail delivery, voting rights advocates fear slow, misdelivered or undelivered mail service could disenfranchise many voters through no fault of their own.  

North Carolina also requires the envelopes carrying by-mail ballots to be signed by a witness and by the voter, and to have certain information included by the voter on the envelopes. If any of that is missing, the ballot will be rejected by state law. Those kinds of rejections are ripe for legal challenges, especially in close or contested elections. 

Lopez worries about a situation where more rejected ballots exist than the margin in an election. 

“What we would really want to avoid is a scenario where people are confused over … the outcome of an election because of a protracted struggle over absentee ballots,” Lopez said. 

U.S. history is littered with examples of power struggles over which ballots to count and which to discard. The best-known recent example comes from Florida in the 2000 general election. Poorly designed ballots and voting machines left more ballots in doubt than the margin of victory, keeping the presidential election from being decided for weeks until the U.S. Supreme Court intervened and halted recounts, giving the victory to George W. Bush

Lopez’s group, Democracy NC, is suing the state, seeking a broad range of election reforms that he says will help the election run more smoothly on the front end and will help avoid confusion after Election Day. 

The state legislature passed a law that addressed some of the concerns in the litigation and helps fund the state’s efforts to run a major election during a pandemic. The state board is taking somewhat controversial steps to address others. 

Running the hurdles

For voters, voting by mail requires a two-step process – assuming everything goes right the first time.

First, request a ballot.

Second, after receiving the ballot, vote and return it. 

On the administrative side of things, the first hurdle is for county elections offices to get the 70,000-and-counting requested ballots out to voters starting on Sept. 4. 

Counties across the state are hiring more staff earlier than they normally would just to pack the ballot envelopes for mailing. The real strain on elections staff and budgets will come when voters start mailing ballots back. 

“We haven’t even seen the peak of requests (that will be) coming in,” Bowens said. “And then you’ve got to balance that against all the ballots that will be coming back.”

In Mecklenburg, the county is hiring 25 staff members to stuff envelopes, compared with its usual 10. In Pitt County, Elections Director Dave Davis budgeted for a call center but will have to redirect those funds to staff processing by-mail ballots. 

There is some good news to this.

“The absentee for us here is going to be extra work, but the benefit will be helping to take the weight off for the voters and the workers during One-Stop and Election Day,” Davis said. 

A recent change in election law gives counties more time to process the ballots that come in. Boards of election now have five meetings prior to Election Day when they can process absentee ballots and run them through a scanner. The results are not printed until Election Day. 

Though there is no statewide process for dealing with the rejected ballots, the state board plans on releasing guidance soon, according to Gannon. 

As it stands, counties can decide whether to notify a voter automatically if a ballot is rejected. Many county boards of election, including all those interviewed for this story, automatically mail the voter a new ballot with a letter explaining why the previous ballot was rejected. 

However, this process takes time. Every election, a wave of ballot returns arrives within a week of Election Day. If those ballots have problems, officials don’t have enough time to mail new ballots to voters. 

The state board is working on a new online system allowing voters to track their ballots, but election directors do not know yet what that system, set to launch Sept. 1, will look like.

“The onus, to some extent, is going to have to be on the voter to follow up on ballot returns,” Bowens said. 

That means checking their ballot status online, calling their county’s board of elections or voting in person. As long as a by-mail ballot has not been accepted, voters can still go to a polling place, ask that their mail-in ballot be spoiled and cast a ballot. 

Elections directors are asking two things of voters this fall. For those using the absentee-by-mail option, vote early. That will give the county more time to process the ballot before Election Day and, should there be a problem with the ballot envelope, to contact the voter. 

For voters mailing their ballots, send them at least a week before Election Day and make sure they are clearly postmarked with the date and time. Voters can also drop absentee ballots off in-person at the Board of Elections office. 

Election directors are also asking for patience. 

“Voters, bear with us,” Bowens said.

“Your elections administrators in the state are working around the clock, literally, to try to make this thing be as successful as it can be for our state. … We’re in new territory but we’re working hard to make sure everybody stays healthy and votes.”

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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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