A long line of voters stretches around the Enka-Candler library in Buncombe County early Thursday morning as one-stop voting gets underway. Photo courtesy of Phyllis Taylor

More hours and more locations mean more options for voting early in person this year, when everyone from county election directors to national election experts expects record turnout. 

Already, over half a million ballots have been accepted through absentee-by-mail voting. Now, voters have a chance to cast ballots in person. Between the two methods, an estimated 80% of voters will cast their ballots before Election Day, according to the state’s election director, Karen Brinson Bell

As of 9 a.m. Thursday, every county in the state opened for early voting, with some opening earlier. Early voting sites will be open every day until Oct. 31. 

Spreading out the vote like this, across 17 days, vote-by-mail and Election Day, helps prevent long lines, according to Tomas Lopez, the executive director of the voting rights group Democracy NC. 

This has benefits for voters and election officials, Lopez said. 

“One of the reasons why early voting has become as popular as it is, not just here but really around the country, is that it reflects the reality that people have busy lives, busy schedules, and they like options.” 

Early voting is good for voters who can’t get off work on Election Day or want to avoid long lines, Lopez said. It also requires fewer hurdles and causes less confusion than voting by mail, the rules for which are still being sorted out in court. 

Early voting is good for election administrators because it takes the pressure off any one day for voting, Lopez said. 

It also helps elections officials process votes ahead of Election Day, so that all the votes cast during early voting and absentee-by-mail will be counted and posted as soon as polls close around 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3. By the end of the night, when Election Day votes are also counted, North Carolina will have counted the vast majority of ballots cast in the election. 

Unlike in several other swing states, only a couple percent of the expected ballots will be counted after Election Day, lightening the load on elections officials and giving North Carolina a little more certainty a little sooner about the fate of its politics, and that of the nation’s. 

Democracy NC and other voting rights groups encourage voters to cast ballots during early voting because it offers a protection that Election Day or vote by mail does not — same-day registration. 

Voters who recently moved or forgot to register before the deadline can register and vote at the same time, in the same place. To register, a voter will have to bring a proof of residence, though not necessarily a photo ID.

Election officials will accept a “copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document showing the voter’s name and address,” according to the N.C. State Board of Elections. 

North Carolinians can expect to see lines at their early voting sites on opening day, especially before noon. When the rate of voters lining up outpaces the rate at which voters cast votes, lines increase exponentially, according to research from the MIT Election Lab. When exuberant voters line up before voting sites open, long lings can quickly form. 

To avoid waiting in line or creating lines for others, voters who have the flexibility should vote midday, after the morning rush and before the after-work crowd. Voting in the first week and on a weekday could also help avoid crowds, as early voting is busiest on weekends and in the final days before the election. 

Lopez has simple advice for people with busy schedules.  

“Vote whenever it makes sense for you,” he said. 

COVID-19 will slow our process down

Elections officials had extra work to set up voting sites this year. To protect voters and poll workers from exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19, election sites statewide are decked out with plexiglass dividers, gallons of hand sanitizer and floor markings to keep people 6 feet apart. 

Elections officials will have masks available for voters who need them but will not be able to force anyone to wear a mask. 

Poll workers will also clean the voting sites regularly, with some election directors like Tonya Burnette of Granville County telling their staff to clean each voting booth between every voter. 

The state and federal governments dished out over $20 million to North Carolina counties to help cover the expenses of running an election during a pandemic, much of which went to pay for personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and extra staff. 

Burnette spent her Wednesday going around to Granville’s voting sites and making sure they were ready, with the laptops and printers set up by the county’s IT department while vendors laid out the tables, voting booths and sanitized the rooms. 

Even in Granville, a small to midsized county with 39,000 voters, Burnette expects long lines, she said. 

“This is an unusual election,” Burnette said. “We expected record turnout anyway. This year, COVID-19 will slow our process down.” 

The space between voters, disinfecting between each voter and the long ballots are the culprits Burnette named. 

Two larger counties, Durham and Buncombe, launched online tools so voters can see how long lines are before going to a voting site. 

Voters can find the early voting sites in their county and find sample ballots on the state election board’s website. Each county also posts the locations and hours of its voting sites. 

Voters can find candidate information on Carolina Public Press’ website and find step-by-step directions on how to vote early from nonprofit groups and the state’s elections website

Absentee-by-mail voters who want to return their ballots in person can also do so at an early voting site. They will have to wait in line with other voters, though some counties may have a separate line for ballot drop-off.

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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