The 2020 elections were already shaping up to be a beast long before face masks and plexiglass shields entered the conversation.
The Buncombe County Board of Elections was adjusting to new rules, which meant that city contests typically held in odd years would now be on the ballot alongside county and state races and the highly polarized presidential faceoff. Meanwhile, Corinne Duncan, the new director of Buncombe County Election Services, was still settling into her job. Nonetheless, the March 3 primary went off without a hitch, despite North Carolina’s first COVID-19 case being diagnosed that morning in Wake County.
At first, Jake Quinn, who chairs Buncombe’s Board of Elections, felt lucky: North Carolina had dodged the COVID-19 bullet and avoided the fate of other states left to complete their primaries under stay-at-home lockdowns. But then came the second primary, a June 23 runoff to determine the 11th Congressional District’s Republican nominee. Suddenly, Quinn was “very, very concerned” about trying to conduct an election amid mounting coronavirus cases.
In retrospect, however, the runoff turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened, says Quinn. It gave his team a chance to execute a pandemic-era election, complete with personal protective equipment and social distancing requirements — essentially, a dress rehearsal for the fall’s full run.
And with less than seven weeks left till Election Day, Duncan says her department is prepared to ensure that every county resident can vote safely and securely. “We anticipated this being the biggest election ever, but we did not anticipate COVID-19,” she says with a chuckle. “So this is extra ‘the biggest election ever.’”
An absentee avalanche
In more normal times, says Duncan, there are three main steps voters need to take to get ready for an election: get registered, check your sample ballot and decide whether to vote absentee, early or on Election Day. But this year, as people formulate their voting plans and decide what they deem safe, that last decision may loom extra large.
Typically, only about 5% of North Carolina’s ballots are cast by mail, Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the state Board of Elections, said during a Sept. 3 virtual press conference. This year, between 30% and 40% of voters may choose to do so, she predicted.
In 2016, roughly 7,500 Buncombe County residents requested absentee ballots. But as of Sept. 7, that figure had already been “blown out of the water,” notes Duncan: With a month and a half still to go, more than 35,000 people had submitted such requests. Statewide, more than 784,000 absentee ballot requests had been submitted by Sept. 13, according to the state Board of Elections website.
In North Carolina, anyone can request an absentee ballot, and the process is easy, said Brinson Bell. Request forms can be submitted by email, mail, fax, in person to each county’s main elections office or through an online portal the state launched this month.
After voters submit a completed absentee ballot request form, which asks for their date of birth and either their Social Security or driver’s license number, the appropriate ballot gets mailed out, Duncan explains. In Buncombe County, a team of 20 volunteers and 10 staff members assigned to process those requests is able to send out approximately 5,000 ballots per day.
Completed absentee ballots can be returned either by mail or in person at the Election Services office, 77 McDowell St. in Asheville. To streamline the process, a designated intake station has been set up in the parking lot, says Duncan. Voters can also return absentee ballots at early voting sites, but only from Oct. 15-31, and even then, they may have to wait in line, she adds.
Meanwhile, cuts to the U.S. Postal Service, including limits on overtime, reduced hours and the removal of high-speed sorting machines, are further complicating this year’s absentee voting. After the March primary, local postal workers reached out to the Buncombe Board of Elections to discuss what had gone well and what areas needed improvement, notes Quinn, laying the groundwork for a strong working relationship in the run-up to the general election.
“I hadn’t seen that kind of outreach and open lines of communication between Election Services and the Postal Service before,” he says. “That gives me a big boost in confidence, because we want everyone to feel confident in the process and knowing their vote is going to count.”
The official deadline for submitting an absentee ballot request is Tuesday, Oct. 27. However, postal officials are recommending that all such requests be submitted by Tuesday, Oct. 20, to ensure that the completed ballots arrive by Election Day, stresses Duncan. To make sure their votes are counted, however, she’s advising those who plan to submit either ballot requests or completed ballots by mail to do it two weeks ahead of the applicable deadline.
Keeping people safe
But even if someone requests an absentee ballot, notes Quinn, they’re not obliged to use it. So despite the surge in such requests, Election Services can’t assume that in-person voting will be reduced by that amount.
Buncombe County plans to operate 16 early voting locations from Thursday, Oct. 15, through Saturday, Oct. 31. At every site, social distancing measures will be in place, and all voting machines will be sanitized after each use. All voters are strongly encouraged to wear a face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, says Duncan, but no one will be turned away for failing to do so.
And with heavy turnout expected and an unusually long ballot, she’s urging all voters to look up their sample ballot ahead of time to expedite the process. “If you come prepared, it will help move the line along and will also minimize the time spent in the voting enclosure,” notes Duncan.
In the past, Election Services has struggled to recruit enough poll workers to staff early voting sites and Election Day precincts. This year, though, folks have been volunteering in droves, Duncan reports. As of Sept. 7, there were only 15 open spots left for early voting staffers, and all but about 90 of the 700 poll workers needed for Election Day and as backups had already signed on. However, the fact that Buncombe County has far more registered Democrats than registered Republicans has made it harder for elections staff to find enough of the latter in filling the remaining spots, she says.
All poll workers will be required to wear face coverings and gloves and use hand sanitizer frequently, Duncan explains. At check-in stations, plexiglass shields will separate voters and staff, and during early voting only, a map on the Election Services website, updated every 15 minutes, will show the estimated wait times at all 16 locations, to minimize close contact while standing in long lines.
Quinn, too, is encouraging folks to figure out how they want to vote and then get it done early. “Voting on Election Day is a tradition, but this year, I feel that a lot of people have pretty much made up their minds whom to vote for,” he says. “The earlier you vote, the easier it is for us to keep pace with the electoral process.” Although both absentee and early voting returns will be tracked as they come in, the results won’t be officially tabulated and made public until Election Day or later.
Last winter, election officials were most concerned about security issues, notes Quinn. Accordingly, teams from both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the N.C. Board of Elections visited the Buncombe County office early in 2020 to ensure that the correct systems were in place and the equipment was up to date.
Buncombe County uses paper ballots, which makes them less vulnerable to hacking, says Quinn. The county does maintain an electronic poll book to keep track of voter information, but the computers used by volunteers aren’t connected to the internet, so hackers can’t break in and manipulate the information.
The electronic poll book also catches people attempting to vote more than once, he continues. Intentionally voting more than once or even attempting to do so is illegal, Quinn reminds voters, notwithstanding recent remarks by President Donald Trump encouraging North Carolina voters to try and vote twice to test the integrity of the elections system.
All submitted absentee ballots are reviewed by a bipartisan team of election officials and are checked again by the county Board of Elections during a public meeting before being included in the official vote counts, Duncan explains. Votes cast at early voting sites are tallied daily, she says, and on Election Day, all votes are checked again at the end of the night. If there’s any question about registration status, voters can complete a provisional ballot, which is flagged for later review.
Duncan’s biggest concern, though, is the spread of misinformation, which her office has limited control over. “That’s where people’s fears can be manipulated,” she points out. “If people have any questions they need answered, they need to come to the source, which is our office and the state Board of Elections office. That’s it.”
Despite the challenges and the fact that there’s still a long way to go before the final count is approved, however, Quinn says he’s heartened by the number of community members who are stressing the importance of this year’s contest and doing all they can to boost public awareness.
“So many people are so passionately interested in making sure that their vote is cast, their vote is counted and that this election goes smoothly,” he says. “You see it all over the place: There are people helping us recruit poll workers, people using social media, people writing letters to the editor or talking to their friends about how important it is to vote. Because the more people who vote, really and truly, the more legitimate the outcome is.”