Durham County Board of Elections staff process absentee ballots at the agency's warehouse on Sept. 29, 2020. Each blue bin holds ballots from a different precinct. The workers are removing ballots from absentee-by-mail envelopes and flatten them, to be scanned in batches later on. Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press
Durham County Board of Elections staff process absentee ballots in October 2020 at the agency's warehouse. Each blue bin holds ballots from a different precinct. The workers are removing ballots from absentee-by-mail envelopes and flatten them, to be scanned in batches later on. Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press

Already in this election, more than twice as many absentee-by-mail ballots have been returned to North Carolina county boards of elections as in the 2016 presidential election.

The state is on track to have over 30% of the ballots cast this year be voted by mail, compared with 5% in 2016. 

That sheer increase in volume has changed how county elections offices are running the election. In June, the state passed a law that changed some of the rules around absentee-by-mail voting to make it easier for voters to cast their ballots and for counties to handle the increase. 

One such change is that the legislature allowed counties to meet earlier and more often to begin processing by-mail ballots. The point of starting weeks in advance is to have the ballots ready to be counted on Election Day. 

The 453,489 ballots returned as of Friday morning are spread across all 100 counties, and each county is responsible for reviewing and preparing its ballots for counting.

For a ballot to be accepted, and therefore processed, the ballot envelope that it comes in needs to have information from the voter and a witness who is required to watch the voter mark the ballot. If certain information is missing or incorrect, the voter will either need to sign an additional certificate for the ballot to be accepted or to request a new ballot. 

Carolina Public Press is observing the process in some counties.

When counties first met on Sept. 29 to process absentee ballots, Durham County processed the almost 14,000 ballots it had received back since ballots first went out to voters in early September. 

Now, the weekly lift is a bit lighter. On Tuesday, Durham had 5,891 ballots to process, all of which had arrived in the last week. 

If the counties did not keep pace with the ballots coming in, they would have to process and count all of the ballots after Election Day, which could take weeks. Though that is a problem in states around the country, which could mean that the national results for the presidential election remain unclear well into November, it is not so in North Carolina. 

When polls close on Nov. 3, North Carolina will upload the votes from all the early voting and absentee-by-mail ballots that they have received through the day before. Karen Brinson Bell, the director of the N.C. State Board of Elections, expects that could be 80% of the total votes cast in the election.

Most of the remaining votes will come in on election night, leaving a small percentage of absentee, provisional and military or overseas ballots to be counted by Nov. 13, when counties are scheduled to make their vote counts official. 

County boards of elections, however, are hard-pressed to keep up. So far, Durham’s meetings to process ballots have started at 5 p.m. and gone late into the night, putting the meeting in recess after 11 p.m. only to finish the job later in the week. 

“It really feels like election night,” one of Durham’s Board of Elections members, Pamela Oxendine, said in the Sept. 29 meeting. 

Questions remain about which ballots to accept 

County boards of election follow rules set out by the state legislature and the NCSBE. Right now, some of those rules are in question. 

The NCSBE sought to settle a lawsuit in state court and proposed rules around what to do with absentee-by-mail ballots that have errors or omissions on the required voter and witness information on the ballot envelope. The proposed rules would allow voters to cure every error, including the lack of witness information. 

The state legislature did not like those rules and moved to stop them from going into effect, both in state and federal courts. 

That means that 6,838 ballots around the state are in limbo. Since Oct. 4, counties have not been able to take any action on ballots with errors on the return envelope. Voters cannot fix those errors or cancel their ballots, which would allow them to request a different vote-by-mail ballot or to vote in person, which begins next week.  

There is also confusion about another set of ballots — ones brought back in person to county elections offices by people who are not the voter or an immediate family member

Technically, if anyone possesses someone else’s ballot and is not their close relative, that opens the person up to possible prosecution for a Class I felony, the lowest class of felony in North Carolina’s criminal codes. 

But the fact that the ballot is returned improperly is not a reason to reject the ballot, absent errors on the return envelope or evidence that the ballot was voted fraudulently, according to guidance from the NCSBE’s legal counsel. 

Derek Bowens presented that information to his state board on Tuesday. The week before, Durham’s board members voted to postpone accepting ballots received from “unauthorized returners” until they received clear, written instructions from the state. 

Board member Dawn Baxton, who is also an attorney, said she was concerned about accepting ballots that would later be challenged and about putting people who did not know any better in harm’s way. 

So far, Durham has had 13 absentee-by-mail ballots returned by people not legally authorized to bring them in. Bowens calls or emails each of the voters whose name is on the ballot. 

“In a few instances, the voter is like, ‘There is no other option,’” Bowens said. 

He told the board members about one such voter who is disabled. Her niece is her closest family member, and that is who turned in the ballot, but nieces or nephews do not count among “immediate family members” as defined in state law. 

In other instances, the possibly illegal return of a ballot is the result of inconvenience and unawareness of the law. 

One voter returned her ballot and her boyfriend’s ballot. They live together, but that also does not qualify as an immediate family member. When Bowens called the voter and told him the situation, the voter requested that his ballot be spoiled so he could vote a new ballot. 

Bowens said the ballot as is would be accepted, but the voter was concerned that litigation down the line might cause his ballot to be challenged. That is why he wanted to start the process over again, he told Carolina Public Press and requested that his name not be used over concerns of potential prosecution. 

Around the state

Boards of elections meetings are open to the public. Because the boards are meeting to process absentee-by-mail ballots, and that can only be done in person, counties have to let the public into the buildings to watch the meetings. 

Some counties, like Durham, Forsyth, Guilford and Wake, are also putting their meetings on live video feeds, though the extra step is not required. Other counties, like Cabarrus and Mecklenburg, the county with the state’s second-most registered voters, are not. 

It’s not required, so the board doesn’t, officials told Carolina Public Press. 

In Forsyth County, the board used its meeting to prepare for early voting and Election Day. 

The usual concerns over polling place security have been heightened this year, particularly since President Donald Trump called for his supporters to watch voting sites and began recruiting people through his campaign to do just that. 

Political parties have observers and electioneers at polling places every year. Trump’s call for observes is unusual because local party chapters, at the state and county levels, typically organize observers for the elections.

Trump also called for a group called the Proud Boys, who have shown up heavily armed at pro-Trump rallies across the country and who are associated with the white supremacist gathering at Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, to “stand back and stand by” during the election. 

The Forsyth County board was told that police and sheriff’s officers would patrol the areas near voting sites during the Oct. 15-31 early voting period and on Election Day, Nov. 3. The officers, however, are not allowed to be in uniform and stationed at the polling place, as that could be an issue of voter intimidation. 

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Jordan Wilkie is a former Report for America corps member and reporter for Carolina Public Press. Casey Morris is a Carolina Public Press contributing reporter based in Winston-Salem. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact members of the CPP news team.

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