By Jordan Wilkie, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
Important links to helpful sites
How do I find my N.C. county board of elections office?
Here’s a site to help you find your county board of elections office.
How do I print a North Carolina absentee ballot request form?
Here’s a site to show you how to print an absentee ballot request form.
What if I need to print it in Spanish?
Here’s a site to tell you how to print it in Spanish.
I want to check my North Carolina voter registration. Can I do that online?
Yes, here’s a site to check your North Carolina voter registration.
It turns out that I need to register to vote. Is there somewhere I can go online?
Yes, here’s a site to help you register to vote.
Basics of voting by mail in NC
Can I vote by mail?
Yes, but you need to figure out some other things first. Are you a registered voter? Check your voter registration. If you’re not registered at your current address, register to vote. If you are registered, you can vote by mail, as long as you request a mail-in ballot in time.
So how do I request a mail-in ballot?
If you request before Tuesday, Sept. 1, download a request form or pick one up from your county board of elections office, then return it to that same office by email, mail, fax or in person. They’re also available in Spanish. You can also have your county board of elections mail you a request.
After Sept. 1, you will be able to request an absentee-by-mail ballot online at the N.C. Board of Elections website.
Because voting by mail can take a while, we strongly recommend that you request a ballot as soon as you can. The first ballots will be mailed out on Friday, Sept. 4.
Due to the time it takes to deliver and return a ballot by mail, elections experts recommend voters request their by-mail ballots no later than Thursday, Oct. 15. If you plan to return your by-mail ballot in person to your county board of elections, you can request the ballot a bit later.
How do I fill out a mail-in ballot?
Follow the instructions that come with your ballot. You will need one witness who is over 18 years old to sign off on the ballot envelope. The instructions will tell you more about who can act as a witness and where to sign. You will also need to sign your ballot envelope.
If you make a mistake, tear up your ballot and request a new one.
How do I return a mail-in ballot?
Mail your ballot back to your county board of elections. You’ll need your own stamp. You can also drop it off in person at the board of elections office or drop it off at an early voting site in your county. You can also drop off a ballot for your spouse, sibling, parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, mother-in-law, father-in-law, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, stepparent, stepchild or legal guardian and vice versa. It is illegal for you to drop off anyone else’s ballot or for anyone else to drop off yours.
You will need a witness to sign your ballot envelope even if you return it in person.
The U.S. Postal Service suggests you mail your ballot back no later than Friday, Oct. 30. Election officials and other experts are saying it’s probably better to mail your ballot back earlier, no later than Sunday, Oct. 25.
Really, as soon as you are comfortable voting your ballot, vote and return your ballot. The earlier voters have their ballots back to their county BOEs, the smoother the counting process will go.
Worried about the ballot arriving on time?
Should I use a commercial mail courier (FedEx, DHL or UPS) to return my ballot?
You can, though it is not necessary and might not help. Many millions of voters will be mailing their ballots through USPS, which can handle that volume of mail.
Will USPS be able to handle the volume of mail?
Yes. Even with mail slowdowns over the last decade due to budget cuts and a loss of revenue, the USPS is able to handle a very high volume of mail. The real question is whether your ballot will arrive on time to be counted. Mail your ballot back before Oct. 25, drop it off in person at your county board of elections or drop it off in person at an early voting site in your county to be supersure your votes are counted.
Deciding the best way to vote
Why would I vote by mail?
If you do not want to vote in person, you can vote by mail. This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of voters are choosing to request absentee-by-mail ballots to avoid early voting sites or polling places.
If you would prefer to vote in person and are worried about exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19, you may want to consider voting during early voting, which is also called One Stop, and runs from Oct. 15-31.
The regular voter registration deadline is Friday, Oct. 9. You can also do same-day voter registration in person at One Stop voting sites.
Is voting by mail better for any one political party?
No. Many studies have shown that there is no partisan advantage to voting by mail. Historically in North Carolina, Republican voters have used absentee-by-mail voting at slightly higher rates. So far this year, unaffiliated and Democratic voters have requested more by-mail ballots, which may be due to higher outreach by political and advocacy groups favoring Democratic voters.
Changing your mind on how to cast your ballot
If I request a by-mail ballot, can I vote in person?
Yes. You can vote in-person until your by-mail ballot is accepted by your county board of elections.
If I request a by-mail ballot but go vote in person, what do I do with my by-mail ballot?
Tear it up. If you bring it into the voting center, it triggers a number of procedures that may slow the voter check-in process.
What if I send in my ballot but am afraid it won’t arrive on time? Can I vote in person?
Let’s say you waited until close to Election Day to mail in your ballot. The online portal does not say it is accepted yet. You’re nervous about it arriving on time.
You can vote in person until your absentee ballot is accepted by the county board of elections. You will probably want to tell the precinct judges to cancel your by-mail ballot or call your county board of elections and tell officials there the same.
Ballot security issues
Will I need a photo ID to request an absentee ballot or vote by mail?
No! Due to court orders blocking North Carolina’s photo ID law from taking effect, you won’t need one if you vote in person, either. Most election experts say photo ID laws don’t really make elections more secure, despite rumors and political rhetoric to the contrary.
I got a blank absentee ballot application in the mail. Is it OK to use it?
Several groups are sending out absentee ballot request forms as part of mass outreach by political and advocacy groups. “These efforts are mostly legal,” the state Board of Elections said in a press release, though the mailings can be confusing. It’s typically best to rely on official sources and to get your absentee ballot request forms from the state Board of Elections website (in Spanish here).
Is voting by mail secure?
Yes. The concern about vote by mail is making sure ballots get delivered and returned on time (so request and return your ballot early, as soon as you know whom you want to vote for). That’s different from concern about ballot fraud, which is very rare.
The state and county boards of elections will go through a number of checks to make sure the process is secure and reviewed. There are also a number of advocacy groups and, of course, news outlets, watching the voting process closely. Voting by mail is an established and secure way to vote. The difference this year is only in scale, not security.
Can I track my ballot?
Yes. The state Board of Elections will release a tool to request an absentee ballot and track the ballot on Sept. 1. It is not clear yet what functionality that will have.
Currently, you can use the state’s voter search tool to see if your ballot has been accepted.
How does the absentee voting process work?
What is the timeline for requesting and returning the absentee-by-mail ballot?
You can request an absentee-by-mail ballot now.
On Sept. 4, county boards of elections will send out ballots for all requests to date.
If returning the ballot in-person, it needs to be back to the county BOE by 5 p.m. on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3. Returning the ballot in-person to an early voting site in your county will work.
If returning your ballot by mail, it must be mailed and postmarked by 5 p.m. on Election Day and received by 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6.
The USPS says mail should be given seven-10 days for delivery. The best recommendation is to mail your ballot no later than Oct. 25.
The last day to request an absentee-by-mail ballot is Tuesday, Oct. 27. The USPS told the state Board of Elections, as well as state election boards around the country, that having such a late deadline to request a ballot does not give the USPS enough time to deliver, and have the voter return, an absentee-by-mail ballot by the deadline.
What is the timeline for absentee-by-mail ballots to be counted?
Any ballots received before 5 p.m. the day before Election Day will be counted on Election Day. Those results will be uploaded to election night results at or close to 7:30 p.m., when polls close (or later, if courts order some polls to remain open for any reason).
All ballots received and accepted after 5 p.m. on Election Day and before 5 p.m. on Nov. 6 will be counted and made public by the county canvas. Those happen 10 days after Election Day, so on Friday, Nov. 13 (this can be delayed). The canvas is when counties make their vote counts official.
The state Board of Elections meets three weeks after Election Day to make state results official. If the state board does not have all county results by then, its members can push the date back.
When will I receive my ballot?
County boards of elections typically aim to process absentee-by-mail ballot requests within 48 hours. There is no law giving them a deadline to mail you your ballot. As the volume of requests goes up, so too will the time it takes for election staff to get you your ballot.
The state Board of Elections says that if you “do not receive it within about a week, contact your county board of elections,” though eight-10 days might be more realistic. This is why requesting your ballot early could be a smart move and helpful to county BOEs.
Does North Carolina have drop boxes for by-mail ballots?
No. Ballots can only be dropped off at an early voting site in your county or at your county board of elections office.
Do I need stamps to send my ballot back?
Yes. You will need a 55-cent stamp to mail your ballot back. No election official or advocate can pay for your postage, per North Carolina law.
You can buy stamps online through a number of retailers and through USPS. You can also buy stamps at office supply stores, Walmarts, banks and often gas stations, pharmacies or grocery stores.
Is the ballot available in Spanish or any other language besides English?
Editor’s note: This FAQ draws heavily from the state Board of Elections’ FAQ, which the board will continue to update. The FAQ is very detailed. If you have questions after reading our FAQs, reach out to your county board of elections office. This FAQ will be updated periodically as new decisions on election details come from the N.C. Board of Elections, as new information becomes available and as Carolina Public Press readers conduct us with questions that aren’t already included.