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Missing postmarks probably weren’t decisive in any North Carolina elections in 2020, though it’s mathematically possible that they did make a difference in one statewide race.
More North Carolina voters cast ballots by mail in the 2020 general election than ever before, likely driven by self-preservation during a pandemic and by the convenience of voting from home.
State law already allowed ballots mailed prior to or on Election Day to be counted as long as they arrived at county boards of election within a few days, and a controversial legal settlement extended the arrival deadline until Nov. 12.
While a postmark is typically a simple and straightforward indication of when an envelope is mailed, questions surfaced about exceptional cases: Should envelopes that arrived Nov. 4 but lacked a postmark be counted? Can one logically assume that for a ballot to arrive on Nov. 4, or even Nov. 5, that it must have been mailed by Nov. 3? Do those votes count?
These questions applied to just more than 400 ballots in North Carolina in the 2020 election — a tiny fraction of the more than 5.5 million votes cast. But with some races decided by only a few hundred votes, including the razor-thin margin that made Chief Justice Paul Newby the state’s highest-ranking judge, these questions became more important.
According to N.C. State Board of Elections data provided to Carolina Public Press, 44 of the state’s 100 counties rejected a total 419 ballots because they were received after the deadline on Nov. 4 and Nov. 5, either with a late postmark or without one, and lacking any other evidence that they had been cast before the Nov. 3 deadline.
The campaign of Newby’s opponent, then-incumbent Cheri Beasley, made arguments about a substantial number of ballots that went uncounted. With regard to missing postmarks, her campaign argued unsuccessfully that it was “implausible” that ballots received by Nov. 5 were not mailed by the Nov. 3 deadline. Newby prevailed by 401 votes.
“It’s a small number,” said Chris Cooper, head of Western Carolina University’s Department of Political Science and Public Affairs.
“Could it have made a difference in a race that tight? Perhaps, but I don’t think this was the difference maker in North Carolina.”
The counting process
Under state law, the deadline for county elections boards to accept absentee ballots postmarked on or before Election Day is set at 5 p.m. three days after the election. That deadline was extended until Nov. 12 as part of a legal settlement, which provoked a fight that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to intervene.
A Sept. 22 memo from the N.C. State Board of Elections provided additional guidance to the counties, telling them to research ballots received past the deadline without a postmark through BallotTrax, an online tracking system, to determine whether there was a record that they had been mailed on time.
The postmark requirement, or some other evidence of receipt such as a BallotTrax record or commercial carrier tracking, is meant to prevent fraudulent voting after learning an election’s outcome, according to the memo.
According to N.C. State Board of Elections data, 96 counties reported a total 11,879 mail-in ballots received on Nov. 4 and 5. Of those, 10,849 ballots were accepted. Elections officials didn’t count the other ballots for a variety of reasons, among them: The ballots were spoiled, returned as undeliverable or had problems that couldn’t be cured on time.
The state’s two largest counties, Wake and Mecklenburg, accounted for about half of the total rejected ballots returned after the deadline at 131 and 74, respectively.
Mail delays became a nationwide focus after President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Postal Service, threatening to block funding for the institution. Elections officials across the country urged voters to either return mail-in ballots in person, get them in the mail early or mail them from a post office and watch a clerk postmark them.
“We told people, and if you’ve read the instructions, we made it clear,” Kristin Mavromatis, a spokesperson for the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections, said in a phone interview. “The post office was saying it takes 10 days for first-class mail, and we told people, ‘You need to make your decision. Mail by this date.’ That was in our instructions.”
An analysis of processing times released by the U.S. Postal Service in January reported that it took an average of 1.6 days for ballots to be delivered from the voter to election officials.
Philip Bogenberger, a regional spokesperson for the Postal Service, said in an email that its teams “used extraordinary measures and swept through our facilities at close on Election Day to make sure all ballots were expedited forward.”
Gerry Cohen, a Wake County Board of Elections member, said he noticed in late September that mail sorters weren’t doing a good job postmarking ballots. As the election neared, however, the post office “doubled down,” and with just days to go, Cohen said, some ballots were being delivered the same day. He said he also noticed that a “huge” number were hand-canceled, which means postal workers were sorting and postmarking the ballots by hand rather than using mail sorting machines at distribution centers.
“What they were doing was clearly expediting ballots,” Cohen said of the Postal Service.
Wake County received a total 2,510 ballots Nov. 4 and 5, and accepted 2,246 of those. Of the 131 that it didn’t count because they were classified “returned after deadline,” 32 were registered to Republicans, 34 were Democrats and 62 were unaffiliated, according to an analysis of the data. The remainder were registered either Constitution or Libertarian.
Cohen wondered whether the reason unaffiliated voters outnumbered others was that they were less politically connected, even during a bitter presidential election cycle. And while the numbers show it may have been “a wash” for both the Beasley and Newby campaigns when considering data from ballots returned after the deadline, he also noted that some voters simply don’t pick a candidate for every race on a ballot, especially down-ballot.
“I’m going to make a sort of political science assumption here that unaffiliated voters were more likely to have a drop-off because they weren’t voting based on party,” Cohen said.
Mecklenberg received a total of 891 ballots Nov. 4 and 5 and accepted 726 of those. The ballots are reviewed by a bipartisan board evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and their findings are presented to the county Board of Elections, which completes its own review, Mavromatis said.
Using BallotTrax, “we were able to prove that several of them that either had no postmark or had a late postmark were actually in the postal stream on the third,” Marvomatis said. “And all of those through BallotTrax were counted. So, 74 either were not in BallotTrax, had no postmark, or the postmark was after the third.”
In Pitt County, which ranked No. 4 for its 20 uncounted ballots returned after deadline on either Nov. 4 or 5 — Guilford County ranked No. 3 at 23 — 12 were rejected because a voter returned the mail-in ballot to a polling place instead of to the county’s elections office, as required by law, Elections Director Dave Davis said. Unlike during early voting, when a mail-in ballot could be delivered in person, on Election Day, workers don’t have return logs to accept them, Davis said.
Despite what might have been a poll worker’s best efforts to stop the voter, not everyone could be intercepted.
“They just go,” Davis said. “They don’t listen. You see all kinds of things.”
Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy NC, a nonpartisan voting rights organization, called the 419 uncounted ballots returned after deadline a concern that election administrators should try to understand but said that low figure didn’t seem to indicate a systemic, or more widespread, problem.
About 2% of the state’s mail-in ballots cast during the 2020 election, which totaled more than a million, were not counted because of other issues, Lopez said. Those issues include failure to provide a signature or a witness.
“I think it’s a part of this bigger picture of … how do we continue to get closer to, you know, as many of these lawfully cast ballots counting as possible,” Lopez said.
Instead, that low total was a sign to some that, in spite of challenges brought by a pandemic, worries about postal delays, misinformation about mail-in voting and other political interference, the state’s by-mail election process was an overall success.
“I think it was a professionally conducted election in North Carolina, and this is one more piece of evidence to support that,” Cooper said.