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My adventures with mail-in voting

A week after I mailed my registration form to the State Board of Elections, I still hadn’t received my voter card. I looked myself up in the North Carolina Voter Search and saw that I was still listed under my old address. I was starting to get nervous…did my form get lost in the mail?

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

That was just one of several worries and speed bumps that I encountered in my weeks-long effort to mail my ballot to the Durham County Board of Elections. In an ordinary year, that would be a routine act. But with President Donald Trump repeatedly attacking absentee voting and calling this “the greatest rigged election in history,” I was worried: Would my ballot get to the elections office in time to count?

My adventure began Sept. 22 with a seemingly easy change of address. But when I didn’t show up in the database with the new address, I called the Durham County Board of Elections. After waiting on hold for about 30 minutes, the friendly lady who answered the phone told me she couldn’t see my new address in the system and that I should just submit another registration form. 

This time, though, I should send it to Durham, where it would end up anyway, she said. Mailing it to the state board prolonged the process and invited opportunity for error. 

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She also suggested I email or drop it off in person rather than mail it. She said my form was less likely to get lost that way, an assurance that wasn’t the most reassuring since my goal was voting by mail. 

Besides Trump’s comments, which fact-checkers have consistently said are false or unfounded, the controversy of mail-in voting was heightened in the summer when Trump’s Postmaster General Louis DeJoy implemented a series of cost-cutting measures, including eliminating overtime for mail delivery, reducing post office hours and removing mailboxes. 

The changes have not only been faulted for delaying mail delivery and potentially results for the upcoming election, but also threatening to disenfranchise voters whose mail-in ballots do not arrive on time. 

As a result, surveys show reduced confidence in mail-in voting, particularly by Republicans. Still, a record number of voters will rely on mail-in voting this year. Nearly 40% of the state electorate will vote absentee in North Carolina, said Damon Circosta, chair of the State Board of Elections. But with all this fuss about the ballots and the Postal Service, many of us worry if our ballots would make it by the Nov. 12 deadline. 

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I took the advice of the friendly lady at the Durham County office and decided to scan and email my second voter registration form to the county, along with my absentee ballot application.

 I did have to ask my professor to print the form for me, however, because not only do I not have a printer at home, but I ran out of my allotted printing money from Duke this month. I wondered if lack of printer access is a barrier for some voters who may want to vote by mail. 

Three days later, I looked myself up once again and saw that I was correctly registered under my current address. Yay! (I was only listed once, though I sent in my registration form twice. I guess they either disregarded the other form or never received it.) 

Now I was ready to vote. I went on BallotTrax, an online tool to track the status of an absentee ballot. I was pretty excited to be able to know the whereabouts of my ballot, rather than simply mailing it off to the Ethosphere. 

But alas, Ballottrax could not find my information in their system. Weird, I sent my absentee ballot request in the same email as my voter registration.

I called the state (wait time: about an hour) and finally was told I should call my local elections board. 

When I called Durham (wait time: 30 minutes), the representative told me that my absentee request was denied because the last four digits of my Social Security number on my request form did not match their records. 

However, I verified my Social Security number with her and what I wrote on my form was indeed correct. We never figured out why it didn’t match. 

The representative then told me to take a photo of my Social Security card, blur out the numbers except the last four digits (I thought about voters who may not know how to do this) and email it to the county board, which I completed on Oct. 7. 

I wasn’t terribly worried. I still had almost three weeks until the ballot request deadline. Still, given that I mailed my first voter registration form 16 days earlier, I thought I would have my ballot by now. 

I called the county board again two days later to check on my request. They said that my ballot was mailed out two days earlier. Finally! 

* * *

I set up BallotTrax to send me text and email notifications. I would know when my ballot was on the move and when it got accepted. 

On Oct. 10, I got a blank absentee ballot request form and a letter from the county about the Social Security snafu. But I decided it didn’t reflect my current status, so I tossed it into recycling and took my dog to do her business. 

Three days later, after a long day of classes and Zoom meetings, I opened my mailbox and was thrilled when I saw a big envelope stuffed inside.

I hurried upstairs and tore it open. Inside were the ballot, a return envelope, two sheets of instructions and the distinctive Durham sticker of a bull and the slogan No Bull I Voted. I geeked out about the sticker and wanted to show it off on social media, but I felt that it wouldn’t be right until I had actually voted. 

The next day, I enlisted my friend (and 9th Street colleague) Rebecca Torrence to be my witness (every absentee ballot must have one). Rebecca sat next to me while I danced in my chair, filled in the ovals for my candidates and squeaked, “I’m voting, I’m voting!” 

Rebecca then wrote her name, address and signature. Between then and the next morning when I mailed out my vote, I checked the ballot at least three times to make sure that I filled it out correctly. 

Whew! It took more than three weeks for me to register and cast my mail-in ballot. I’m grateful that mail-in voting is a viable option for voters who cannot go to polls because of COVID-19 or other reasons. But after going through the hassles, I would have preferred to vote early in person, which not only would have been faster, but also would have saved me from finding a printer, spending hours on the phone and generally worrying that my mail could get lost in transit. 

BallotTrax was helpful in giving me some peace of mind, though I did not get notifications for two stages of the mail-in voting process that I was promised (inbound to the county board and when it was received). 

But I got the one that mattered. On Oct. 17, two days after dropping my ballot into the blue box in front of Brueggar’s Bagels on 9th Street, I received a text through BallotTrax that my ballot had been accepted.

I carefully stuck my No Bull I Voted sticker onto my coffee tumbler, proud of myself for voting in my second presidential election, ever.

9th Street Journal reporter Rose Wong with her “I voted” sticker.

Photos by Rose Wong | The 9th Street Journal