Souls to the polls? How churches and other nonprofits can help North Carolinians vote

Souls to the polls? How churches and other nonprofits can help North Carolinians vote

It’s obvious why the N.C. Council of Churches and its allies on the faith-and-justice spectrum hope to see plenty of like-minded voters turn out for the elections this fall. Much is at stake, from who will serve as the nation’s chief executive during perilous, challenging times to who will decide how public schools will operate while the coronavirus still threatens.

But as the familiar adage reminds us, hope is not a strategy. With less than three months until Election Day, Nov. 3  – and only half that time until the distribution of absentee ballots – churches and nonprofits ought to be ramping up their get-out-the-vote efforts. This year, that’s a trickier proposition than usual:

  • Many voters understandably will be leery of voting in person, considering the risks of COVID-19 infection at crowded polling places.
  • Likewise, county elections boards might struggle to staff their polls with enough workers as many people who ordinarily have volunteered for that essential duty decide that amid the pandemic, discretion is the better part of valor. That includes older people especially, given virus risk factors.
  • If enough poll workers can’t be found, precincts may have to be combined on Election Day – making the hitched-together precincts even more vulnerable to unsafe crowding.
  • Voters who don’t want to commit to in-person voting can take advantage of North Carolina’s absentee voting privilege, which requires no excuse or explanation. However, most absentee ballots will be returned through the mail – meaning they could be caught up in a surge. Some voters won’t want take a chance that their ballots will get lost in the shuffle. Weighing the health risks at polling places, they’ll have to decide on the lesser of evils.
  • The U.S. Postal Service will play a crucial role in the election, given the anticipated volume of mail-in ballots. Yet the USPS is in the midst of changes that could mean back-ups in mail delivery become even more of a problem, not less. These changes are being spearheaded by newly installed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy of Greensboro, a top Republican campaign donor, at the same time President Trump is trying to undermine public confidence in an election that will depend to a large degree on timely, honest mail delivery.
  • Trump could be pushing to help protect the integrity of mail-in ballots (North Carolina already has a good system) and to make sure those ballots are properly delivered. Instead, he’s complaining about how voting through the mail is susceptible to cheating and about a likely post office fiasco. Of course, what he’s doing is fabricating excuses in advance for a loss to Joe Biden – excuses that he could use to push the election into the courts or even to Congress. He wants his criticism of voting by mail to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Helping people navigate the process

The upshot is that a church or other nonprofit that wants its members fully engaged in this election can and should be taking steps to help folks navigate an unusual and difficult voting landscape.

Such an effort hinges first of all on good information – explaining not only why the group believes it’s important to vote (see the Council of Churches’ guide), but also how to go about it safely and effectively under the circumstances. The virus has given the tried-and-true custom of “souls to the polls” a whole new twist.

The first order of business is to encourage people to make sure they’re properly registered. This search tool from the State Board of Elections lets people check their registration status and their address of record, which needs to be current. Some churches and allied organizations have set a goal of ensuring 100% registration among their eligible voters, using phone banks, newsletters and mailings to drive the effort. That goal is ambitious, but it’s a good indicator of the resolve needed to secure a high turnout in the fall.

Groups then can commit to helping members follow the process for voting by absentee ballot. That process involves applying for a ballot, using the official form available through the State Board. Churches and other third parties are allowed to supply copies of the request form. That takes some planning when few congregations are holding in-person worship services, but it can be a useful service for people without access to a computer and/or a printer.

A voter must follow certain rules when submitting an absentee ballot request; instructions are included with the form. Requests can be made at any time, and ballots will be mailed out starting on Sept. 4.

Again, rules must be carefully followed when filling out an absentee ballot. The idea is to create a chain of custody from the voter to the local elections board, and to guarantee that the person submitting the ballot is who he or she claims to be, voting only once.

For security purposes, a witness must observe the ballot being marked (without watching to see which candidates are chosen). The witness then signs the special return envelope. A bar code is supposed to allow the ballot to be tracked. This set of FAQs from the State Board summarizes the whole routine.

The plan’s the thing

Now come some important and intertwined decisions – and churches and nonprofits can help their members sort these out. First, a voter who has received an absentee ballot still can vote in person so long as the ballot hasn’t been returned. It’s an individual choice resting on personal schedules, risk assessments and, yes, someone’s degree of confidence in both the post office and the elections board to handle and count ballots properly.

The keys are for each voter 1) to make a plan that he or she is comfortable with, 2) to have options in case Plan A for some reason doesn’t work out, and 3) to get it done sooner rather than later, to avoid last-minute crunches and surprises.

Here’s a flow chart-type approach that some churches and other groups are promoting:

  • Apply for an absentee ballot. The application deadline is 5 p.m. on Oct. 27, but sooner is better. Do it right away.
  • If you’ve evaluated candidates up and down the ballot and know your preferences, return the ballot promptly – say by late September.
  • If you miss that window, scope out a convenient early voting site and figure out when it’s likely to be not too crowded. (Early voting, with same-day registration, runs from Oct. 15-31.)
  • Go to the early voting site. If the line is minimal, mask up and go ahead and vote in person (to have that satisfaction of watching your ballot go into the machine!).
  • Alternatively, turn in your absentee ballot at the site, as you’re allowed to do. You may need to go inside and check in, but you’ll know the ballot has gotten into the right hands.
  • If none of those options look decent, put a stamp on the ballot return envelope and mail it in. However, folks should not tempt fate by running up against the deadline, which requires a ballot to be postmarked by 5 p.m. on Nov. 3 and received by 5 p.m. on Nov. 6. That’s likely the period when the postal system will be under maximum stress.
  • Make in-person voting on Election Day at your assigned neighborhood precinct the option of last resort. With luck, it wouldn’t be a problem. But there’s no telling what the conditions will be – or even whether the polling place will be operating. Then of course there are the complications that sometimes keep people from voting on Election Day even when there’s no virus floating around – bad weather, illness, a situation at work. The point is, you absolutely don’t want to miss out on having your say at the polls. So don’t wait to vote until the last minute unless there’s simply no other choice.

Church and nonprofit leaders can help ensure that this kind of advice gets distributed, perhaps drawing on independent, nonpartisan groups such as You Can Vote for support.

For all those leaders’ well-aimed exhortations about everything that’s on the line in Election 2020, they will be wasting their breath if folks don’t manage to overcome this year’s extraordinary challenges and actually cast their ballots. So the Council of Churches hopes that all of its members and friends get the message. It not only hopes, but also expects there to be a strategy.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches, which first published this commentary.