Election watchers from political parties observe Granville County Board of Elections members scan accepted absentee-by-mail ballots on Tuesday in Oxford. Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press

Thursday shattered North Carolina’s record for votes cast in a single day of early voting.

Voters cast 333,134 ballots in voting sites around the state. In 2016, the next-highest year, the first day of early voting saw 165,947 votes cast. 

However, the first half-million ballots cast in the state this year were through absentee-by-mail voting. Through Thursday, county boards of elections have accepted 556,365 absentee-by-mail ballots. 

Between the two methods of absentee voting, 12% of registered voters in North Carolina have already cast ballots, by far the fastest pace for voters to reach this level of turnout in an election since at least 2008. 

A month ago, Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College who tracks absentee data daily, told Carolina Public Press that early returns of absentee-by-mail ballots likely show that many voters are both motivated and decided. They do not need to wait until closer to Election Day to see how any of the races will play out or to get more of a sense of the candidates. 

This dynamic seems to have carried into the excitement for voting early in person. 

To Tonya Burnette, Granville County’s election director, this is not a surprise. Even with record-breaking votes cast using by-mail voting, Burnette was expecting record-breaking votes cast during early in-person voting. 

On Tuesday night, Burnette was working with her Board of Elections members to process absentee-by-mail ballots. On Wednesday, she was driving around the county setting up her early voting sites. 

Both processes have their administrative hurdles. In-person voting requires physical space. This year, county election directors were tasked with finding larger sites so that voters could be more spaced out inside, one of the many precautions against the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. 

Each voting site requires a setup with plexiglass shields to protect voters from each other and poll workers from voters. Ballot scanners, computers for checking voters in and printers for sign-in forms all need to be set up. But once a voter goes through the steps, the ballot is counted, leaving less back-end work for elections staff. 

Not so for absentee-by-mail voting, which may be the most time-consuming task facing elections offices. North Carolina has never had more than 5% of its votes cast on by-mail ballots. This year, the state is on track for over 30% of votes to come in by mail, down just a little bit from projections earlier this month. 

Volume, litigation hampering mail-in process

Some counties are struggling to keep up, and the legal fights over absentee-by-mail rules are not helpful to elections staff or voters. 

Earlier this week, The Associated Press reported that some voters wait for weeks to receive their absentee-by-mail ballots after requesting them. North Carolina does not have a law that says how quickly an absentee-by-mail ballot must be sent out after it is requested. 

Though counties seem to be moving as fast as they can, the state is not set up for this level of by-mail voting. 

Processing those requests, then packing the ballots, return envelopes and voter instructions into individually labeled envelopes takes time and lots of staff. It is not an automated process. 

Buncombe County had a two-week delay in sending out by-mail ballots, “but we’ve been working hard to close the gap and we are down to a week,” a spokesperson told CPP. “We expect to be down to a few days by the end of the week.” 

Forsyth and Guilford counties are both turning requests around in about five days. Edgecombe, slightly smaller, is taking as few as three days. But every county, depending on its size, how many staff it has hired specifically to process by-mail requests and local interest in by-mail voting will have a slightly different turnaround time for its voters. 

With hardly two weeks left until Election Day, time is running short for requesting an absentee-by-mail ballot, the county sending it out, the voter receiving it in the mail (which also has delays due to COVID-19 and political maneuvering), the voter marking the ballot and returning it on time to get counted. 

Buncombe County advises its voters to request an absentee by-mail ballot no later than Oct. 20. The deadline to request absentee-by-mail ballots is Oct. 27, but election officials and the U.S. Postal Service both warn that that is likely too late to receive the ballot and vote it on time. 

Absentee-by-mail ballots must be turned in to an early voting site, the county elections office or be in the mail and postmarked by 5 p.m. Nov. 3. 

Some voters who have already turned their by-mail ballots in are experiencing a special kind of delay, a sort of legal purgatory in which their ballots have been trapped for two weeks. 

In this election, for the first time, North Carolina has rules in place whereby voters can cure errors on their by-mail ballot envelopes. In past elections, if voters forgot to print their name, for example, the ballot would be rejected and voters would have to cast a new ballot. 

This year, county boards can send a certificate to the voter. If the voter signs and returns the certificate, which can be done over email, the ballot in question can be accepted. 

But since Oct. 4, the N.C. State Board of Elections has put a freeze on doing anything with ballots that have some sort of deficiency.

Numerous lawsuits in state and federal courts are challenging the rules for which errors on absentee ballots can be cured and which cannot. Until that is sorted out, the state board told counties to do nothing. For now, voters cannot even spoil their ballots to try again with a new by-mail ballot or vote in person. 

There will be more court hearings next week that might give the state some clarity, but at that point, it might be too late for these voters to receive another ballot through the mail. 

The backlog is a problem for elections officials, too. Tending to the ballots with errors on the return envelopes takes more work than to ballots without, so though the 7,000 ballots are only a tiny fraction of the total votes to process, they will be the most time demanding.

The closer the state gets to Election Day, the more work elections officials have, and the confusion over how to process certain ballots is not helping.

Jordan Wilkie and Casey Morris

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. 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.