Graphic via Desirée Tapia for Cardinal & Pine NC vote by mail
Graphic via Desirée Tapia for Cardinal & Pine

‘Fake news’ trolls may disparage it. But vote-by-mail will play a key role in the 2020 election. 

Under current law, any registered North Carolina voter can request an absentee mail-in ballot, for any reason. And with the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and the uncertainty of quarantines, elections officials are predicting up to 40% of ballots could be cast by mail this November, rather than the 5% seen in a typical election.

In order to make this easier and encourage voting among those isolating in their homes, the N.C. State Board of Elections, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and other groups are all proposing different policy changes and budget requests to address the 2020 election. 

These range from the state paying for the postage of returning ballots to deploying multi-partisan assistance teams to help elderly voters not just in nursing facilities but in their own homes where a family member may not be available.

“It definitely shouldn’t come down to whether somebody can afford a stamp,” said Marcus Bass, executive director for the political organizing group Advance North Carolina, which concentrates on mobilizing and empowering communities of color. “There are already enough barriers in the process as it is.”

Separately, the AARP is asking the state to send vote-by-mail ballots to every North Carolina voter, following in the footsteps of five Western states that already conduct all elections by mail. Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are also working to legislate sending mail-in ballots to registered voters in every state, an idea with strong popular support. 

“North Carolina should begin efforts now to develop alternative means for voters to cast their ballot that do not require them to physically go to a polling station, before it is too late,” the AARP wrote in a letter to the N.C. General Assembly.

“Going completely to vote-by-mail elections in this manner would have the state prepared no matter what is happening this fall and would avoid the issue of putting poll workers and voters at risk.”

Though Board of Elections director Karen Brinson Bell doesn’t think the state can transition this year to mail-for-all, her 15 recommendations to the General Assembly envision ways to smooth the process of requesting and returning mail-in ballots, along with making Election Day and early voting safer for the public and staff.

She recommends taking orders for vote-by-mail request forms by phone and through a yet-to-be developed online portal; mailing voters their absentee-ballot request forms already pre-filled with their personal information; allowing those to be returned by email or fax; and accepting utility bills or other official documents to prove identity for voters lacking a Social Security card or driver’s license.

“This particularly affects senior citizens who may not have a driver’s license number and cannot recall or do not have access to their Social Security number,” Bell wrote to the General Assembly on March 26. “Allowing this option will make it easier for those most at risk of contracting COVID-19 to vote absentee by mail.”

Bass said he hopes that legislators will trust impartial elections experts like Bell to do their jobs and develop a plan. But he’s skeptical about whether Republican leaders truly want a wide range of people to vote.

“What is the priority of this General Assembly?” he asked. “Is the priority to provide access to the ballot? Or is it to limit or restrict access by certain communities?

“With our priorities in order, we could at least have been researching these things two months ago,” he said. “When your priority is on limiting access, then there’s no need to do research.” 

At a March 18 meeting of the state’s Task Force on Elections and COVID-19, state and county-level staff discussed security, ballot counting, digital scanning and basic processing of mail, all posing problems for instituting universal mail-in voting on a short time horizon.

According to the official notes of that meeting, members talked about “significant challenges” impeding vote-by-mail for all. Members also commented that they expect absentee voting by mail to increase even after this fall’s election, as voters become more accustomed to the process.     

The pandemic is stressing the state’s elections procedures in a politically fraught moment, just a year after officials uncovered evidence of illegal collection and tampering with ballots by Republican operatives.

As a result, the GOP-led legislature passed Senate Bill 683, preventing anyone but a legal guardian or an elections official from helping a voter submit an absentee-ballot request. Voting-rights groups have sued the state to overturn that law so they can assist voters applying for absentee ballots. 

Another lawsuit builds on Bell’s proposal, supporting her requests for prepaid postage for mail-in ballots and reducing the number of required witnesses from two to one, but also extending the mail-in deadline to nine days after Election Day for everyone as it currently is for overseas military personnel. In 2013, three years after winning a majority in the House and Senate, Republican legislators made North Carolina one of only three states in the U.S. to require two witnesses on an absentee ballot.

“Requiring two witnesses or a notary creates an impediment that we would really like to see alleviated,” said Bass. “That is definitely something that could cause someone to not vote.”

Advance NC is among those suing the state. Bass says the GOP’s reforms have undermined access to voting rather than protecting it. In responding to alleged activity that already violated existing laws, like those against McCrae Dowless, charged with ballot-harvesting and a host of other crimes, Bass says the General Assembly ended up blocking churches and other civic groups from empowering citizens to exercise their rights to vote. Those are the types of community advocates who used to be able to help people request and submit their mail-in ballots.

“The processes that have been put in place since then don’t quite match what happened in that situation,” said Bass. “There is an expansive network of local, state and national groups that have historically supported voters in every phase of non-partisan voter engagement. Organizations that have historically followed the rules, they have been denied access because of the actions of a political operative. There’s been no real evidence that there needs to be any legislative remedy.”

State Rep. Darren Jackson, the House Democratic Leader from Wake County, said social distancing will make it hard to comply with that rule, especially for vulnerable seniors quarantining at home.

“You can’t let people get in,” he said. “They may not want to have two people in their home to witness their ballots.” 

Jackson said Democrats are supporting Bell’s requests, not just for expanding mail-in voting but also for making Election Day safer by recruiting younger workers for the precincts, where the average age of a worker has been around 70 years old.

Experts say anyone over 65 is more vulnerable to serious and possibly fatal symptoms from COVID-19. Bell wants to make Election Day a holiday so that government workers, students and teachers can serve. She also wants to lower the minimum age of a precinct judge to 16-year-old high-school juniors; and to increase the pay from the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Poll workers typically work a full 14-hour shift.

Jackson added that the state needs to fund county boards so they can expand early-voting hours to head off crowded sites with long lines that would increase the chance of infection. 

Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the state’s Board of Elections, said staff have been communicating with legislators and expect them to consider a bill in the coming weeks. In notes from the April 2 Task Force meeting, elections officials acknowledged “political backlash” toward some of Bell’s recommendations. “Hard political lines have been drawn,” they said.

Though they haven’t publicly responded to Bell’s proposal and didn’t return phone calls or emails for this story, Republican legislative leaders have consistently framed the current laws as aiming to prevent fraud, though there’s no proof it’s a widespread problem.

“To my knowledge, the Republican leadership has not indicated what they want to do yet,” said Jackson. “I’m hopeful that something will be done, but I haven’t heard of any plans. Requesting an absentee ballot, I think we should make it easier.” 

Bass said even in this time of social-distancing, voter-advocates can supply postage and offer troubleshooting over the phones. 

“With organizations that are equipped with PPE there is opportunity to schedule in-person visits for senior residents and other independent-living voters who need additional support,” said Bass. “Historically, these individuals need assistance in multiple facets of their lives. This hands-off approach denies them the ability to do that.” 

Bell is asking the General Assembly to approve nursing-home workers, not just legal guardians, to help with voting by mail. 

Common Cause NC, another advocacy group, further wants the Board of Elections to invest in public education and promotion on how mail-in voting works.

Bass said these are needs that local churches or community groups could help to meet if recent legislation hadn’t shut them out.

“Historically, it has always been advocates in communities who do the grassroots education,” Bass said. “I don’t think it should be one agency alone that is responsible for doing that. It is a shared responsibility. We need the groups that are typically known and trusted to do that work within our communities.”