BY AIDEN CARSON
What’s your plan for voting in November? Or maybe you figure you don’t really need to think about it yet? But as every day of 2020 flies at us with one plot twist after another, believe me, you do need a plan — and perhaps a backup plan, too.
COVID-19 has hit our country hard in ways that impact every area of life; “normalcy” seems like a distant memory. In a normal election year, you’d expect to go to the polls on Election Day or during early voting, according to your preference and convenience, with little thought for your health or safety. You’d probably consider voting by mail only if you planned to be out of town.
But this is no normal year. The virus and the changes we’ve made to reduce its spread have created a host of obstacles that we’ll have to overcome in order to have a fair and successful election. There are worries about the act of voting itself and still more potential difficulties connected with the process of tallying the ballots.
Voting by mail
In 2016, 4.4% of North Carolina voters cast absentee ballots, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice. This year, state election officials say we may see a tenfold increase, as voters choose to vote by mail rather than risk exposure to the virus at polling places. Buncombe County Election Services has already received more absentee ballot requests than the total number of such requests four years ago, according to Election Services Director Corinne Duncan.
All of those absentee ballots, plus however many more end up being cast this year, will have to be counted. Each one is examined by hand by a bipartisan team at Election Services to ensure that it’s legitimate and that all the rules have been followed. The voter’s signature is compared with the signature on record. It’s a labor-intensive process that’s going to take a lot more time this year than ever before.
Fortunately, Election Services is adding staff and more space to get the job done, and they’ll begin counting the ballots much earlier than in previous years. Even so, if you decide to vote by mail, you don’t want to wait till the last minute to fill out the request form — you can file a request now for the November election. The ballots themselves will be sent out starting Sept. 4, and your completed ballot must be received by Election Day — or within three days afterward, if it’s postmarked by Election Day.
Don’t waste your vote! Send in your ballot with plenty of time to spare. You can find step-by-step instructions for voting by mail on the local League of Women Voters chapter’s website: avl.mx/7sx.
But if you opt to vote in person, how much should you worry about contracting the virus? We recommend the flexibility of early voting, but whether you choose to vote early or on Election Day, county staff will be doing their best to keep you safe. Each site will have a greeter who will welcome you and offer a mask if you need one. Voters will be strongly encouraged to wear masks, but they can’t be forced to do so. Hand sanitizer will be available, and you’ll be given a single-use pen to keep.
People waiting in line will be spaced at 6-foot intervals. Inside, clear plastic barriers will separate you from the poll workers, who’ll be wearing full personal protective equipment, including masks and, in some cases, face shields. Polling stations will be sanitized each time someone votes.
All of these precautions will require more poll workers at each site, and since they’ve historically tended to be older citizens — precisely the folks who are more vulnerable to the virus — election authorities are seeking additional workers. They are paid, trained positions, so please consider applying if you can. These jobs won’t interfere with unemployment benefits and are a great way to earn some extra money.
There are also opportunities for 17-year-olds through the Student Assistant Program (see box). A lack of poll workers could lead to long lines at voting sites and perhaps suppress the turnout, so spread the word!
Yet another complication is the fact that this year’s ballot will be much longer than usual, meaning each voter will be taking more time in the booth. Sample ballots will be available starting Sept. 4, and it’s very important that you take a look at it and make your decisions in advance.
Meanwhile, the national League of Women Voters’ Webby Award-winning site is a great resource for all kinds of voting-related matters, including checking your registration. By mid-August, the site will also feature information about the candidates and their responses to the league’s questionnaire.
I hope this helps you make a plan for voting. Check your registration, then decide whether you want to vote by mail, in person, or whether you prefer to apply now for an absentee ballot and defer your final decision till we have a better idea of what we’ll be dealing with in November.
It’s not too soon to figure out who will witness your absentee ballot or how you’ll get to the polling place; this is also a good time to review the sample ballot and learn about the candidates. But whatever you decide, please don’t let anything stop you from voting!
Aiden Carson, a retired systems engineer, has been a member of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County for 35 years; she is currently the local chapter’s co-chair of voter services.