PW special report: What NC must do to conduct a fair and safe election this fall

PW special report: What NC must do to conduct a fair and safe election this fall

North Carolina advocates, election officials and lawmakers answer our questions about holding an election in the era of COVID-19

It’s not easy to forget the photos of masked Wisconsin voters standing in large lines waiting to cast a ballot in the middle of a pandemic. Residents there risked their health and lives to make their voices heard; they chose democracy in the face of uncertainty, and now, the rest of the nation has a chance to learn from them.

North Carolina advocates and the State Board of Elections have been working on anticipating COVID-19 election needs since the beginning of the pandemic. The November election is less than six months away, and it could look a lot different than years past – starting with the number of absentee ballots that are expected.

To run smoothly, the state and county boards of elections need more money. Voters need more education. And lawmakers have been urged to consider loosening voting restrictions to increase access to the ballot and protect public health.

Lawmakers have yet to take up the issue of safety and ballot access in the upcoming election. They passed a $1.6 billion COVID relief package without directing any funds to the State Board of Elections, but noted in the bill that they would draft separate legislation to deal with it.

It’s not yet clear what separate legislation will look like, though, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers have differing opinions about how to respond to the pandemic in regard to elections. Meanwhile,  some advocates are litigating to expand access to — and safety at — the ballot box.

Lawmakers, advocates and election officials do agree on one question, though: There is essentially no chance the November election will be postponed because of the pandemic. Prior Election Days have been held during times of war, and this year won’t be any different, they said.

To further educate readers about the specific COVID-19 election issues facing voters and proposed remedies from the people who know them best, Policy Watch held a question-and-answer session with advocates, lawmakers and election officials.

Their answers below were provided in writing via email and have been edited for length, grammar and clarity. Policy Watch did not receive responses via email from the NC NAACP, which is involved in elections advocacy and litigation; Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), Rep. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover) and Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell), all of whom are involved in elections committees at the legislature.

From top to bottom: Tomas Lopez, Marian Lewin, Bob Phillips, Karen Brinson-Bell, Greg Flynn, Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake), Sen. Dan Blue (D-Wake), and Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake)

Q&A participants are:

Advocates:

Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy NC

Marian Lewin, League of Women Voters

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC

Election officials:

Karen Brinson-Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections

Greg Flynn, Wake County Board of Elections chairman

Lawmakers:

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett)

Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake)

Sen. Dan Blue (D-Wake)

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake)

Questions and answers:

  1. How is COVID-19 expected to impact voters in the upcoming election?

Advocates:

Lopez: Recent primaries in other states amid the COVID-19 crisis have made it clear: This year’s North Carolina elections will be different. Recommendations to continue physical distancing, the prospect of a poll worker shortage, and strained local resources all have implications for how we can take part and be counted.

We are already seeing these scenarios play out in the 11th Congressional District’s second primary, scheduled for June 23, where poll worker and resource shortages may result in precinct consolidation, eliminating key voting locations across 17 impacted counties. Also, the North Carolina State Board of Elections has predicted that mail-in absentee voting could increase from 4-5% to 30-40%, which will have a profound impact on resource allocation at the county and state levels.

Without legislation to address these challenges posed by our current crisis, at-risk North Carolina voters, including immunocompromised and Black and Brown voters, will face the difficult decision of whether to potentially sacrifice physical distancing to vote in-person or to navigate a complex and confusing mail-in absentee voting process.

Lewin: The League of Women Voters of North Carolina expects voters to be concerned about how they will be able to vote safely and securely in November. The League is concerned about the current difficulty of absentee by mail voting in North Carolina combined with the lack of planning by county boards of election to be able to operate safe in-person polling locations. Voters should not have to choose between their safety and their ability to exercise their right to vote.

Recent estimates by the NC Department of Health and Human Services indicate that more than 50% of people are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 because they are 65 or older or have an underlying health condition, or both. These voters are particularly concerned about being able to vote in a safe environment and will be looking to use the absentee by mail option available to all voters in NC.  Unfortunately, the General Assembly changed that process in November of last year making it more difficult to access an absentee ballot and to return the completed ballot.

Local county boards of elections, which operate all NC elections, rely on local funds to staff, supply and equip election workers. They do not receive funding from the state. Operating a safe election in a COVID-19 environment will require a significant investment in personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and additional training. In addition, local boards of elections may need to have different polling sites to accommodate social distancing and recruit a new pool of workers to staff them. Voters are concerned that adequate, safe in-person voting sites will not be available to them.

Phillips: What the world will look like this fall is filled with uncertainty – but there are at least two certainties regarding this election season: More people will be opting to vote an absentee ballot and fewer trained poll workers will return this fall. Both of these likelihoods are a direct result of the virus. Voters will have to personally weigh the options of whether they will feel safe casting an in-person ballot. In 2016, just 4% of North Carolina’s 4.7 million electorate voted an absentee ballot. State Board of Elections director Karen Brinson-Bell estimates vote by mail requests may be as high as 40%. Poll workers will also be weighing the risks in coming back to work. The State Board of Elections says the average age of a poll worker is 70.

Election officials:

Brinson-Bell: Voters who choose to vote in person – during the early voting period or Election Day – will expect safeguards at polling places to minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Elections officials must ensure that voters who want to vote by mail understand how to do so and that county boards of elections are prepared to process and accurately count an increase in mailed ballots. We must make sure that polling places and early voting sites are adequately staffed and sanitized for voters who wish to cast their ballot in person. Voters are likely to see a much different environment when voting in person, including proper social distancing and personal protective equipment for voters and poll workers.

Flynn: It’s too early to tell. We’ll learn a lot from the 11th Congressional District second primary and we’ll have much more information about COVID-19 by the end of June.

Lawmakers:

Lewis: We are hopeful that by November, our state will be in a better place after having dealt with the crisis and that COVID-19 will have minimal, if any, impact on the election.

Dahle: This is unknown since we are unsure as to how the virus will progress. I would expect that more people will want to use absentee ballots, and we will have to make sure that we have proper safety precautions in place for voters at the polls.

Blue: We don’t want COVID-19 to negatively impact voter turnout. So we need to make sure the voting process is safe and doesn’t impede voter access to the ballot. We are trying to anticipate some impacts that COVID-19 will undoubtedly have on our election system. One of the chief concerns is the effect on our poll workers, who are primarily older North Carolinians who are at higher risk of contracting the virus.

We also need to look at how we can keep our polling places safe for voters by implementing additional public health measures for in-person voting. We don’t want voters to risk their lives by exercising their constitutional right. Additionally, we need to look at how to better accommodate older voters and give them better alternatives to voting in person.

Chaudhuri: If there is resurgence of the virus, then we anticipate absentee ballot participation rates will increase. It will have a dramatic impact on how people vote this coming November.

  1. What are the biggest issues facing North Carolina voters leading up to the election?

Advocates:

Lopez: Voters need access to a less burdensome mail-in absentee ballots process, that allows absentee requests by email, phone, fax, and via a secure online portal, reduces witness requirements from two to one or allows a signature option, and provides voters with pre-paid postage.

Lewin: Uncertainty. About their health due to the status of the spread of the virus in their communities. About the ability of North Carolina to conduct a safe and secure election.

Health experts have warned that a second wave of the virus may require the Governor to reinstate a state-at-home order. This is expected to not only impact voters’ willingness to vote at in-person sites, but it will have a significant impact on the ability of county boards of election to adequately staff and recruit precinct workers. Most voters are not familiar with absentee by mail voting.

It is difficult for voters to make that all-important voting plan which can help them get ready to vote in November. Not knowing whether they will be able to safely and effectively cast their ballot, either by mail-in absentee voting or in-person voting is very worrisome.

Phillips: The biggest obstacle will be educating voters to whatever changes they are going to facing this election. The current cumbersome rules to vote an absentee ballot may be adjusted (we hope) to make it easier to both request and vote an absentee ballot. But again, voters will need to understand what those rules are.

Regarding in-person voting – it’s very possible that many counties will alter their precinct locations and hours of operation to accommodate social distancing. Bigger spaces for precincts with perhaps longer hours during the early voting may be necessary. Again – this will require public outreach education. As the saying goes, we don’t want any voter to have make a choice over voting versus their personal safety. The voting options in this election will likely change, and massive education for voters will be necessary.

Election officials:

Brinson-Bell: Uncertainty about how they’ll cast their ballot, as well as misinformation. In 2020, the same three voting options will still be available for voters: absentee by-mail, in-person early voting and Election Day voting. Voters can decide which option works best for them under the circumstances.

The State Board of Elections encourages all voters to get accurate information about elections from the State and County Boards of Elections. The State Board office released “10 Facts About Voting in North Carolina During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

The State Board created a dedicated webpage for information about voting and the coronavirus, https://www.ncsbe.gov/coronavirus. We also have Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, where we provide voter information and share updates about elections.

Flynn: In terms of politics, as an elections board member, I can’t answer. Voters will be concerned about ease of access to available methods of voting – absentee, early voting, Election Day – based on their personal circumstances.

Lawmakers:

Lewis: I think the biggest issue for the 2020 election has become the economy. We are seeing record numbers of unemployment, businesses are closing, and the markets are incredibly volatile. North Carolinians want to be put back to normalcy and put back to work, which will require our economy to return to its thriving ways seen over the previous four years.

Dahle: Talking to voters and making sure the public is clear on how to find an absentee ballot, as well as [conveying] the fact that we will make it safe if they wish to vote at the polls.

Blue: I think that the chief concern on everyone’s minds right now is public health: funding for our hospitals, research, and access to treatment for COVID-19, and increasing access to affordable healthcare.

There is also a lot of uncertainty around the state’s economy due to the pandemic. As of today, the state is not using every tool available to us to help protect and to bolster North Carolina’s economy. That includes expanding Medicaid and strengthening unemployment benefits. Voters need to take a hard look at why their representatives haven’t taken advantage of these tools to help their constituents.

Chaudhuri: The two biggest issues are keeping our polling places open and safe and expanding vote-by-mail.

  1. Is legislation this session needed to bolster voters’ confidence in the next election? If so, what should lawmakers be working on? (If you are a lawmaker, what discussions have there been about legislation and the upcoming election?)

Advocates:

Lopez: Yes.

The first challenge is funding. The economic crisis is already straining public resources, especially at the county level, where local funds are essential to pay for elections. Between a law passed last fall and the CARES Act this spring, the federal government has set aside over $22 million to help support elections in North Carolina. But to get that money, the state has to chip in 20% of that total –  just over $4 million. This money could be immediately used for obtaining safety equipment, paying poll workers, and filling gaps posed by the new realities many counties are facing.

A second challenge is social distancing. Limitations on physical contact will likely mean massive increases in mail-in absentee voting. But our current system was not built for voting from home and while any North Carolina voter can cast a ballot by mail, current rules make it difficult. For example, voters need to submit a paper request form in person or by mail – and when they receive a ballot, provide two witness signatures (or one from a notary public).

A third challenge is how a potential shortage of poll workers may limit access to in-person voting this fall. Many who have served in the past may be unwilling or unable to do so this year, which, combined with precinct consolidations, meant longer lines and virus exposures in Wisconsin’s March primary.

We’re not seeking an all-mail election – we have to protect in-person voting, by far the most popular form of voting in our state. But to do that, state lawmakers need to modify rules for poll worker recruitment to address staffing shortfalls and appropriate funds to keep vital sites open.

No voter should have to choose between exercising their constitutional right to vote and risking their health. These recommendations expand access to the vote, at a moment we need it most.

Lewin: Yes, the League of Women Voters NC supports the efforts of both the State Board of Elections and advocacy groups to make voting safe and accessible in every precinct in every county in the state. These requests are well documented elsewhere and include:

  • Additional funds for county boards of elections to purchase needed supplies to equip polling locations, funding to pay poll workers more and rent sites adequate for social distancing requirements, hire more staff to process mail-in ballots, purchase stamps, envelopes and print ballots to mail out to voters.
  • Expanded access to absentee by-mail voting through online and email absentee ballot requests, eliminate the witness requirement, provide postage paid on return ballot envelopes, allow for alternate ballot return options which do not require USPS delivery.
  • Expanded voter registration to automatic voter registration and direct online voter registration options.
  • Additional regulatory flexibility to procure the necessary resources and supplies, to recruit poll workers from other jurisdictions, and to operate early voting polling locations and on different schedules.

Phillips: We want lawmakers to make the rules on voting an absentee ballot easier and the recruiting of a younger and more diverse pool of poll workers better. Specifically, voters should be able to request an absentee ballot by phone, fax or email – not just downloading a form, filling it out and then mailing it to the board of elections – as is the current law. Then there’s the absentee ballot vote: we need lawmakers to reduce or eliminate the witness requirement for casting an absentee ballot.

Current law is you must have your absentee ballot notarized by a public notary or have two witnesses sign your ballot under the penalty of perjury attesting that they say you filled out your ballot. That’s impractical with the concerns of everyone wanting to practice good social distancing and limiting their exposure to other people in general. More than 70% of North Carolina households have two or fewer adults according to the State Board of Elections. That means a majority of absentee ballot voters are going to need to find someone outside their family to witness them filling out their ballot. The legislature can fix this by simply changing the law back to what it was prior to 2013 – where one witness was required to sign the absentee ballot.

With poll workers, we need to allow any trained poll worker to be able to work any precinct in the county where they live rather than current law, which requires a majority of poll workers working the precinct where they vote. Lawmakers should also consider boosting poll worker compensation, allowing for more flexible hours and provide personal protection equipment to all poll workers as may be required this fall including masks, gloves, and face shields. In Wisconsin, we know now of nearly 60 people who have tested positive after either working the polls or standing in the long lines.

Common Cause is fine for any and all of these changes to be applied only to the 2020 election.

Election officials:

Brinson-Bell: The State Board office has provided legislative recommendations to the General Assembly that we believe will help voters navigate the absentee-by-mail process and assist county boards of elections in responding to an expected increase in voting by mail. The recommendations, if they become law, would help ensure adequate numbers of poll workers and funding to conduct a successful, safe and accessible election amid a pandemic.

Flynn: Helping people vote quickly and safely – whether absentee-by-mail, early voting or on Election Day – is important. Any resources or flexibility for counties to do this safely and securely at a time when counties are addressing revenue shortfalls due to COVID-19 would help.

Lawmakers:

Lewis: I think voters in our state have a great deal of confidence in our elections overall in this state, but would have more confidence if Voter ID were to be required. As a lawmaker, the only thing I can do is continue to fight the liberal courts to impose the will of the people and allow for Voter ID.

Dahle: I think we need to, at the very least, follow what the State Board of Elections has asked for [and also be] supportive of our county boards of elections.

Blue: I think that voters deserve to see more from their legislators in support of election protection measures. The State Board of Elections has requested over $2 million towards these efforts. While this request wasn’t included in the first COVID-19 relief bill, we need to make it a top priority in the second relief package.

Chaudhuri: Yes, we should directly address these two biggest challenges I mentioned. That means making sure we allocate state dollars to draw down more than $4 million in federal matching funds to hire more poll workers and pay for cleaning equipment and supplies. That also means expanding vote-by-mail rules, including such as prepaid postage for absentee ballots and changing the requirement for two witnesses to sign a ballot.

  1.  How are you working with voters to prepare for the upcoming election? Election officials: Is there anything different to how the State Board of Elections is preparing for the upcoming election? Lawmakers: How are you communicating with your constituents about the upcoming election as it relates to COVID-19?

Advocates:

Lopez: In this public health crisis, our democracy is at stake and we can’t wait to take action for safe and secure elections. As a result, Democracy North Carolina has not only provided common sense voting access recommendations to the State Board of Elections and the General Assembly, but our staff has also been working to move many of our important voter educational programs and election advocacy efforts online – making sure the public can safely participate in all we would normally be doing offline and/or in-person right now. These include:

  • Census Education (co/census). One of the most important things you can do to help your community right now is to fill out your census form. We’ve provided detailed information on things like how to fill out your form online, a hotline in English and Spanish for questions, and talking points to help compel others to fill out their forms too.
  • Early Voting Advocacy (co/evadvocacy): A number of the most important decisions concerning voting access are made at the local level by the county boards of elections who determine where voting happens and the county commissions who make important appropriations decisions. We’ve taken what would be the important work of attending county commission meetings to secure election funding and BOE meetings to advocate for good early voting options – all to the digital space; starting with securing information about how counties will provide meeting and public comment options to interested voters who are sheltering at home.
  • Advocacy for Voting Access (co/takeaction): We’ve made it easy for constituents to advocate in favor of good and safe voting access with your lawmakers, special committees, and even General Assembly leadership amid the 2020 short session.

All of these options are available at our website – democracync.org – and provided to our supporters via text, phone banks, emails, social media, video shares and even our podcast, “Built by Us.”  And as always, you can find the latest rules for voting at our voter education hub: ncvoter.org or by calling our voter hotline at 888-OUR-VOTE.

Lewin: We are working to get North Carolina ready to vote. Initially, we are educating voters on understanding the voting options available to them in the current environment. We want help them start making their plan to vote. Voters in the state know how important this election is to our community and to our country. There will be an election in November. We recognize that the problems experienced in other states, such as Wisconsin, were the result of both bad policies and inadequate planning. North Carolina can do better.

The League of Women Voters NC maintains an outstanding digital voter guide, Vote411.org, a one-stop-shop for election-related information that provides nonpartisan info to the public. Within Vote411.org you can register to vote, find candidate information, find out how to apply for an absentee by mail ballot and get your poling locations. Closer to the election, we provide candidate survey responses for all statewide races and local offices for about one-half of the residents of NC.

Secondly, we are helping voters advocate to change the bad policies and laws that make voting difficult and can potentially put the integrity of our election at risk. The League is helping voters identify those problems and [helping] the legislature and election administrators make the changes so that our election works for everyone. We expect to see many of the same problems that affected states like Wisconsin – overwhelmed mail-in balloting, limited and understaffed polling places, voters and poll workers that get sick.

The legislature needs to make the necessary changes in funding, regulation and expanded services so that all eligible voters participate in this election.

Phillips: It’s all about education – we will be co-producing the state’s largest nonpartisan voter guide this fall, as we do in every election. The guide will have the voting rules as in how absentee ballot voting may be changing and how precinct locations may be different. We will be distributing print guides by-mail and via door-to-door canvassing, as well as online. We will do our own recruiting for Common Cause members to help us protect the vote by being a volunteer poll monitor – standing outside a precinct on Election Day and providing help to any voter who has a problem casting a ballot. And we will also be encouraging more people to consider becoming a trained poll worker by providing them information on how to contact their county board of elections on how to volunteer their services.

Election officials:

Brinson-Bell: So much is different. The State Board office is purchasing masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes and pens for voters and poll workers across the state. We are purchasing high-speed scanners to help county boards of elections count absentee ballots. We are preparing to train elections workers about sanitary practices at polling sites. We are seeking federal and state funding to help cover some of the additional costs. In the coming months, we will take many steps to educate voters about any changes to the voting process and about their voting options for the general election.

Flynn: Our county staff are constantly brainstorming and working through various possible scenarios to be well positioned to act with the best available information and resources when decisions are required to be made by the county board.

Lawmakers:

Lewis: I have told my constituents that I will do everything to ensure that we will protect the integrity of the election process and will take no action that will reduce the security of our elections. Additionally, I am doing everything I can to ensure that every voter in North Carolina is able to safely vote should they wish to.

Dahle: [Did not provide an answer to this question. ]

Blue: I am giving constituents updates on all developments around COVID-19 through my newsletter, and on social media.

Chaudhuri: My constituents care deeply about our democracy. If anything, I hear from my constituents about how they don’t want to choose between protecting their health and protecting their voting rights. I’ve already done one town hall on this event with United States Representatives David Price, G.K. Butterfield, and Alma Adams. I expect to do more going forward.