Your Vote 2020: A Step-by-Step Guide to Voting Absentee in North Carolina

Skip the lines. Here's a step-by-step guide to voting by mail in North Carolina. (Image via Shutterstock)

By Michael McElroy

September 22, 2020

Election Day is more than 40 days away, but you can already vote absentee. Here’s a simple guide on voting by mail in North Carolina.

Voting by mail is well underway and early voting begins Oct. 15. And then there is Election Day itself on Nov. 3.

As you debate which voting route works best for you, here is a primer on voting by mail, as well as a reminder of the key dates to keep in mind as we hurtle through the last few weeks of the Election season.

RELATED: Cardinal Votes: Your Guide to Voting in North Carolina in 2020

  • You’ve not requested your absentee ballot: Registered voters can request an absentee ballot through a newly created portal, in person, by mail or by fax. Here is the request form you can fill out and send in. You must be already registered to vote, but you can find out how to do that here.
  • You’ve requested your ballot, but not received it: Once submitted through the online portal, it takes about 2-3 days to process the request. If volume increases as we get closer to Election Day, it could take longer. The county boards of elections will send the ballot and it should take a week or so to get to you. The deadline to request a ballot is Tuesday, Oct. 27. More than 930,000 ballots have been requested, according to one survey. Some 124,000 have been successfully returned and accepted. 
  • You’ve received your ballot: Fill it out completely, clearly and accurately in front of a witness. Do not let the witness see your votes, however. “Complete your absentee ballot in the presence of one witness and insert the ballot into the return envelope,” the North Carolina State Board of Elections says on its website. “A witness should not observe so closely that they are able to see what votes the voter marked. What is required is that the witness sees that the voter is voting the ballot.” Mail it back or take it to a county board of elections. This far out, you have plenty of time to use the mail, says Gerry Cohen, a member on the Wake County Board of Elections who wrote much of the state’s election laws when he served as counsel to the state legislature for several decades. Most board of election offices are only open during the week and during business hours, he said, and there are no drop-off boxes, unlike in other states. He did, however, suggest that voters take their ballots directly to the post office, rather than putting them in a mailbox and raising the red flag. 
  • Vote only once: Just because you requested an absentee ballot doesn’t mean you have to vote that way. You can still vote in person if you choose. BUT, BUT, BUT, BUT, BUT: Once you return the ballot, that is your vote. Despite what President Trump has suggested, you cannot both send in an absentee ballot AND show up on Election Day. That’s illegal. 
  • Turn in the ballot yourself: Only the voter or the voter’s near relative or legal guardian may possess the absentee ballot to return it to the board of elections.
  • You’ve mailed your completed ballot: The state has introduced a ballot tracking system where voters can check to see if their ballot request has been received and when the board sent the ballot. The system can also be used to track the ballot once the voter fills it out and returns it to the board by mail. 
  • Your ballot has been received: Once received, the ballots will be approved or rejected (because of missing signatures, etc.) by board members in regular publicly held meetings. If a ballot is rejected, the board will reach out to the voters to give them a chance to correct whatever error was found. The closer we get to Election Day, however, the less time those voters will have to make the changes. [So, again. Send in those ballots as soon as possible.]
  • Ensure your ballot is accepted and your vote counts: Here are the detailed instructions from the NC Board of Elections to make sure your voice is heard.
  1. Mark your ballot in the presence of your witness.
  2. You may receive assistance in marking your ballot.
  3. Seal Your Ballot.
  4. Put your ballot into the envelope.
  5. Seal the envelope.
  6. Don’t put anything else into the envelope.
  7. Sign the envelope.
  8. Sign your name on the back of the envelope.
  9. Have your witness sign the envelope.
  10. Your witness will print their name and address and then sign the back of the envelope.
  11. Anyone who is 18 years of age or older can be a witness except a candidate (unless the candidate is your near relative or legal guardian).
  12. If necessary, have an assistant sign the envelope.
  13. If you received assistance with your ballot, the assistant must print their name and address, and sign the Voter Assistant Certification on the back of the envelope.

The number of requests for absentee ballots is many times greater this election season. So above all, make sure you fill out the ballot thoroughly and correctly and turn it in on time. 

Cohen has been active on Twitter urging people to vote by mail.

“I’m seeing posts from some folks who have gotten an NC absentee ballot but are not sure whether they will use it or go early vote,” he Tweeted on Sunday. “That’s their choice, but if they go ahead and vote by mail it will shorten early vote or Election Day line for others.” 

But, he said, “this far from Election Day returning the NC absentee ballot by USPS is perfectly safe and timely.”


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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