The calendar says election day is Nov. 3, but here in North Carolina, it’s already begun. The State Board of Elections began mailing out absentee ballots Friday, September 4th to voters who had requested them. Some have already been returned.
In North Carolina, any registered voter can request such a ballot and vote by mail. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, that option is being explored by a record number of North Carolinians.
As of last week, more than 640,000 requests had been logged, compared to fewer than 40,000 over the same period in 2016. Of those requests, 337,362 were from registered Democrats, 200,359 Unaffiliated and 103,620 Republicans.
N.C.’s 11th Congressional District, which includes Jackson County, also saw a big jump, said Christopher Cooper, Department Head of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. He noted, “Traditionally, there has not been much of a partisan divide in NC on absentee by mail requests—this year is not following tradition.” Almost half – 44 percent – of the 540 requests were from Democratic voters.
Cooper said, “Some of the NC11 counties have some of the biggest increases over 2016, including Buncombe (a 360 percent increase over 2016) and Haywood (375 percent). Henderson also rates high – 14 percent of registered voters in Henderson county have requested a ballot.”
What do the early returns say? “I’ve been joking that reading the tea leaves into return patterns at this point would be like thinking you know something about a baseball season based on whether the first pitch of the first game was a strike,” Cooper said. “Still—it’s important to report, in my opinion, because it shows that vote by mail is working and that counties are processing the requests as they’re supposed to.”
Voters can return their ballot by mail or return it to the elections board.
One thing they can’t do is vote twice, despite some suggestions to the contrary in recent days. Karen Brinson Bell, N.C. State Board of Elections Executive Director, said it’s a Class I felony for a voter who has “intent to commit a fraud to register or vote at more than one precinct or more than one time … in the same primary or election… Attempting to vote twice in an election or soliciting someone to do so also is a violation of North Carolina law.”
There’s been some irresponsible talk that people should mail in a ballot and then attempt to vote in-person to test the system’s integrity. We imagine “testing the system’’ is as likely to hold up in court as saying you yanked on the door of that armored bank truck just to make sure your money was safe.
The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 27, but given recent issues with the USPS its recommended voters do so well before that date. In-person early voting begins Oct. 15. Will the surge in mail voting delay North Carolina’s count when the polls close at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 3? Possibly, but likely only minimally.
Under state law, ballots postmarked on or before 5 p.m. Election Day and arrive before Nov. 6 are counted. In squeaky-tight races – like North Carolina’s 2016 gubernatorial race, decided by less than 11,000 votes – those late-breaking votes could be critical.
But most results in the state should be obvious on election night. And remember, elections officials don’t declare winners on election night. They release official numbers following a canvass.
Media outlets do declare election night winners; this year, if that doesn’t happen in some races, remember these words from Associated Press Deputy Managing Editor David Scott on horse-race winner calls: “It’s always been an unfair expectation ‘in time for your late local news’ on the East Coast. It was unfair before the pandemic. It’s definitely unfair in a pandemic now.”
In other words, it’s 2020. Be patient in seeing how your vote impacts the election.
The first step in that process, of course, is to be sure you cast it in the first place.
Jim Buchanan is the editor of The Sylvia Herald, former Editorial Page Editor for the Asheville Citizen-Times and writes for Carolina Commentary.