In this Wednesday, June 24, 2015 photo, Rev. William Barber speaks at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. in this 2015 file photo. With NC being the first state to send out mail-in ballots, Barber is urging North Carolinians to vote. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) William Barber
In this Wednesday, June 24, 2015 photo, Rev. William Barber speaks at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. in this 2015 file photo. With NC being the first state to send out mail-in ballots, Barber is urging North Carolinians to vote. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

As North Carolinians prepare for an Election Day like no other, state officials say the system—and the US Post Office—is ready for it. 

North Carolina started sending absentee ballots Friday morning to the more than 618,000 people who have requested them so far. It is the first state in the nation to do so, and that is just the beginning. 

Officials across the country expect an unprecedented surge in voting by mail this election because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a surge that will last up to Election Day on Nov. 3. But North Carolina’s head start, elections officials say, will help them avoid many of the potential logistical nightmares expected in much of the rest of the country. It is also a matter of pride.

“We are excited to be at the forefront,” Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the NC State Board of Elections, said in a Thursday news conference. 

“We hope we are setting the right example.”

Those 600,000 ballots are the start of a “rolling process,” Bell said, and officials are working hard across the state’s 100 counties to get the first significant batch delivered within the next week or so. 

“I think we are all working off of adrenaline, and caffeine and passion for what we do,” she said of the effort.

Amid a frenzy of national fear, doubts, confusion, and deliberate misinformation about the durability of the voting process, North Carolina officials say that here at least, those fears are overblown, in part because the system is established, tested and run by an all-hands and bipartisan team with a mission to “protect Democracy.” 

With the 2020 voting season now officially underway, here are some key things to know about absentee ballots:

  • Just Getting Started. Friday is only the start of the first wave of opportunities to vote. As more requests for ballots come in, the state will respond accordingly. Bell asked for patience, but said those 600,000 voters should get their ballots in about a week’s time.
  • Absentee ballots will be accepted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. But officials and voting rights advocates across the board urge voters to send them in as soon as possible. [Seriously. This means you. Yes, you.] 
  • Get your Absentee Ballot. Registered voters can request an absentee ballot through a newly created portal, in person, by mail or by fax. You must be already registered to vote, but you can find out how to do that here.
  • Track your Ballot. The state will soon introduce 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. 
  • Once received, the ballots will be approved or rejected (missing signatures, etc.) by board members in regular publicly held meetings. If a ballot is rejected, the board will reach out to the voter 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.]
  • NC’s Ready. North Carolina is well positioned to handle whatever may come in the next few months, state officials say. 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, said the journey has been hard fought. In 2001, state lawmakers authorized in-person early voting and dropped the requirement to provide an excuse for absentee ballots. “That was a huge sea change,” he said. And in 2011, the legislature extended the time frame to receive and cast absentee ballots from 45 days to 60 days. 
  • Use the Mail for Now. At this early stage, there is no reason to take the ballot directly to the elections board in an effort to avoid postal office delays, Cohen said. 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. 
  • When to Hand In Ballots: In the final week or so, however, he recommends handing them directly to the board.

NC elections officials are “100% confident” that they have in place a safe, secure, well-tested system to ensure all votes are counted, no matter the method, said Damon Circosta, the chair of the State Board of Elections. 

Though none of the members mentioned President Donald Trump by name, the board rejected the dispersions he and his surrogates have cast on voting by mail. 

It is safe, they said. 

It is secure, they said.

They’ve been doing this for years, after all.

“We’ve conducted elections in hurricanes and power outages, said Gary Sims, Wake County’s director of elections. “And this year we’re doing it in a pandemic, but we’ve been planning on this, we’ve been expecting this.”

The county adjusted its processes, he added, to prepare for the increased numbers.  

“You’re going to get your ballot. That’s what we do.”

The protections against absentee ballot fraud are intensive, officials said, and include multiple cameras in the buildings where the completed ballots are kept, and limited access to them. No one is allowed to be alone with the ballots at any stage, and the teams are bipartisan.

As for Trump’s recommendation that NC voters vote by mail and then also show up on Nov. 3 to vote in person, the board referred reporters to a statement they released earlier in the day that stated, “attempting to vote twice in an election or soliciting someone to do so also is a violation of North Carolina law.

Taking Aim at Trump’s Claims

While the board did not mention Trump by name or address questions about him directly, other voting advocates in NC had no such qualms.

Cohen, who is also a long time advocate for expanding voting rights, said that Trump’s comments have amounted to “deliberately introducing chaos.”

“In North Carolina that would double and triple the size of lines,” he said, “and they will find out that the polling place has no idea whether you voted by absentee ballot or not. That is not the place to get information on this subject.”

The suggestion, he said, “is extremely disruptive and pointless. It’s completely ludicrous.” 

The Rev. William Barber II, the head of the Poor People’s Campaign who previously served as the NC NAACP’s state president, said Trump’s words were not only disruptive, they reflected a long campaign by national and local Republicans to deny voting access to people of color.

“Yes, North Carolina is a place of great access,” to voters, Barber said. But only because of the efforts of voting and civil rights groups to beat back efforts to curtail early voting, enact voter ID laws and restrict the access to absentee ballots, he said. 

Absentee voting has “always been a necessity,” Barber said. “But, when it was primarily being used by white voters and upper income voters, it wasn’t a problem. Now it’s going to be used by more voters.” 

“Our efforts have been to say to North Carolinians, use every methodology [to vote], because we fought to open up these things,” Barber added. 

But, no matter what, he said: “For God’s sake, vote.”