After months of concerns about Postal Service delays, unfounded allegations about ballot fraud and worries that mail-in ballot deficiencies would disenfranchise voters, the 2020 election has mostly put the mail-in voting frenzy to rest – at least in North Carolina.
Even so, mail-in voting had its challenges. Processing 1,001,300 mail-in ballots required unprecedented resources.
“It was no small feat, but I am pleased to report that the election administration process in North Carolina went very well,” Damon Circosta, chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said in an email to The 9th Street Journal.
The “no small feat” that Circosta referred to involves the 1,001,300 absentee-by-mail ballots cast in the battleground state as of Thursday, Nov. 12. Election officials counted mail-in ballots that were postmarked by Election Day and received by Thursday.
Tens of thousands of ballots were still counted as outstanding ballots this week, meaning ballots that were requested but not yet returned. It is unlikely that the state board will receive all of them because some people ultimately chose to vote at the polls or not to cast a ballot.
Another uncertainty: lots of lawsuits. They challenged various aspects of the state rules and demanded changes in the mail-in voting process. In one, for example, the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans asked that the North Carolina Supreme Court suspend the witness requirement for single-adult households, among other changes.
While the state board initially agreed to let voters fix missing witness signatures with an affidavit, Republican leaders resisted. That triggered a back and forth, which finally ended with an Oct. 18 decision that voters who submitted a ballot with missing witness information must cast a new vote.
“We were in the midst of both people from the left and the right taking our processes through litigation…I can’t say that that back and forth didn’t come without its trials and tribulations,” Circosta said. “But even through all of that, even with uncertainty provided by courts from NC all the way to the Supreme Court, we were still able to conduct our process.”
Phil Lehman, chair of the Durham Board of Elections, said this year’s surge of mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 led to an unprecedented workload for election officials.
“We’re not a vote-by-mail state, so we’re not really set up to process huge numbers of mail ballots,” Lehman said. “They’re very labor intensive. They take a long time to review.”
Gerry Cohen, a member of the Wake County Board of Elections, said that he didn’t see any major problems in the voting process either. Still, he acknowledged that mail-in voting required more resources than in-person voting.
“It’s more expensive to process absentee ballots, but we completely understood why people wanted to vote by mail versus potentially risking themselves in person,” Cohen said.
Despite working around the clock with his colleagues, Circosta wrote that he was pleased with how the election had gone in the state.
“The election process was secure, accessible and safe,” Circosta wrote.
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?
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.
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!
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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.
In a recent video for the Trump campaign, Donald Trump Jr. becomes a modern-day Uncle Sam, urging Americans to sign up for a new kind of war.
“We need every able-bodied man and woman to join Army For Trump’s election security operation,” he says.
The younger Trump’s video, posted on the Team Trump Facebook and Twitter pages on Sept. 21, follows the Trump campaign’s strategy to rile up Republican voters against the perceived threat of voter fraud. The president’s son claims that the “radical left” plans to cast “millions of fraudulent ballots that can cancel your vote and overturn the election.”
The solution: assemble the troops.
To “enlist today,” he tells supporters to visit defendyourballot.com, which links to a section of the Army For Trump website that encourages voters to join Trump’s Election Day team. The site says volunteers will primarily focus on get-out-the-vote efforts “to ensure any voters who did not vote early vote on Election Day,” and does not mention poll watching or voter fraud.
Experts say voter fraud is rare, including fraud in voting by mail. Both Facebook and Twitter have added disclaimers below the video from the president’s son that state voting by mail is secure, but neither site has removed the video under their misinformation policies.
No U.S. presidential candidate has ever mounted these types of attacks on the electoral process nor called for supporters to “enlist” against the opposing party, said Judith Kelley, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy and an expert in global democracy. But, she said, “dictators do it all the time.”
“The use of terms like ‘army’ is by no means coincidental,” Kelley said. “Once you start using language that hints at the use of force, you are stoking the embers.”
Every party has the right to contest an election on the grounds of potential voter fraud, she said, but those objections should happen after the election, and be accompanied by documentation alleging specific instances of fraud.
Trump’s accusations of mass voter fraud, lodged before the election and without documentation, are “a blatant attempt to undermine the credibility of the process and erode confidence in it,” she said.
David Dixon, chair of the Durham Democratic Party, called the president’s campaign strategy “the most blatant form of voter suppression or voter intimidation possible.”
“You’ll have regular people taking the law into their own hands at polls across the country, scaring voters,” he said. “I think that’s really going to affect turnout.”
The Durham Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.
Fifty-four percent of Durham voters are registered Democrats, compared with 11% of registered Republicans. As a blue county and a “monolith,” Dixon doubts Durham will see an instance of violent voter intimidation. But as the president and his campaign continue to use militaristic rhetoric, Dixon worries that Trump supporters in North Carolina’s more conservative counties will arrive at the polls armed.
“Forty-five minutes north in Franklin or Vance County, there’s a possibility that folks may show up at the election site with guns or other weapons, thinking they’re doing exactly what the president told them to do,” he said.
On Sept. 19, a group of Trump supporters gathered outside of a polling site in Fairfax, Virginia, to wave “Make America Great Again” signs and chant “four more years.” The group did not directly harass voters but did form a line that voters had to walk around to enter the polling place. Several voters reported feeling intimidated.
Dixon noted that the Trump campaign has chosen its words carefully, which provides deniability if there is any violence.
“It gives them wiggle room in case something does happen,” Dixon said.
Kelley and Dixon said Trump’s strategy to stir up fear and anger among Republican voters may signal his intentions to refuse to concede the election, an intention that the president himself has alluded to.
“His tactic is to create a situation that is so chaotic that he’ll be able to say, ‘We can’t accept the results of the election, because look at this mess,’” Kelley said.
The uncertainty of a pandemic election has given Trump plenty of opportunities to instill doubt in the electoral process, said Dixon, but voters will have to wait until November to see what sticks.
“He’s planting so many different seeds,” he said. “Once we get to November fourth, we’ll see what has been sown.”
The House Minority Leader said that he’s particularly concerned about losing the senior vote, which historically leans right. “I tried to show [Trump] … you know who is most afraid of COVID? Seniors. And if they’re not going to go vote, period, we’re screwed,” McCarthy said.
A new 9th Street Journal tally of absentee ballot requests from the North Carolina Board of Elections shows why McCarthy is so concerned. Democratic voters older than 65 have requested nearly twice as many ballots (13,319) as their Republican counterparts (7,007), according to the data available on Sept. 14.
The numbers also show that Republicans account for 36% of the state’s voters who are older than 65, but only 23% of the absentee ballot requests for that age group. Meanwhile, Democrats represent 40% of the state’s senior voters and 44% of voters older than 65 who have requested ballots.
Unaffiliated senior voters, who account for 24% of all senior voters, have requested 32% of the ballots.
As McCarthy feared, Trump’s repeatedattacks on mail-in voting seem to be having an impact — particularly with Republicans. A WRAL poll last week found a third of likely North Carolina voters have little to no confidence that votes cast by mail will be counted correctly. The sentiment varied by party: While 42% of Republicans and and 39% of Independents said that they had little to no confidence in the mail-in voting process, only 28% of Democrats felt the same way.
Republicans usually depend on senior voters, who voted 55% to 42% for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
People over the age of 65 make up 23% of the statewide electorate. In the 2016 and 2018 elections, they had the highest voter turnout compared with other age groups.
But COVID-19 has re-written the expectations for 2020: Adults ages 65 years old and above are the most vulnerable to the virus, representing eight out of every 10 coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. People in this age group may decide it’s in their best interest to stay home and mail in their ballots. But Trump’s repeated attacks on absentee balloting might discourage his older supporters from voting at all.
Republicans can still overcome the disparity in mail-in balloting by getting people to vote in person. Early voting starts Oct. 15 and Election Day is Nov. 3.
Terri Benforado, a 57-year-old Durham resident who plans to vote for Trump, said that she and her husband, who is over 65 years of age and also supports Trump, will vote early in person.
Benforado said that she has always casted her ballot at an early voting site, and this year will be no different. She also volunteers as a poll worker on Election Day. She’s not concerned about potential health risks due to the coronavirus, which she said are exaggerated by Democrats and the left-leaning media.
“I think there’s a risk, but there’s not a risk to my husband and I,” Benforado said.
Staff writer Rose Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Assistance with data analysis was provided by Joel Luther of the Duke Reporters’ Lab; graphic by Henry Haggart of The 9th Street Journal