With North Carolinians on track to cast eye-popping numbers of votes in advance of Election Day, Nov. 3, perhaps it’s time to breathe a cautious sigh of relief. A system that could have buckled under the strain of massive early voting, both by mail and in person, amidst the coronavirus pandemic may have creaked and groaned but so far looks to be meeting the challenge.
That’s a tribute to elections officials, state and local, who have labored for months to make sure voting would take place as smoothly as possible with every vote fairly and accurately counted. Their success has been even more significant in light of President Trump’s efforts to discredit the voting process – too much democracy, don’t you know — as he fights to hold the White House for another four years.
North Carolina’s status as a pivotal “battleground” state in the presidential contest has made it all the more important for voters here to be able to have their say even as they try to avoid endangering their health. And if Tar Heels’ luck holds, safe, efficient, honest elections will yield wise choices across this year’s crowded ballot, not only for the White House but for the governor’s office, Congress, the legislature and judiciary down to local school boards.
All along, the problem facing elections officials has boiled down to how to handle the anticipated crush of energized voters when simply showing up at the polls could mean exposure to the virus.
A cornerstone of the response has been a strengthened and simplified process for absentee voting by mail. While hurdles remain, it’s fair to say that absentee voting thus far has gone well despite a flow of ballots far surpassing those in previous elections.
Yes, some kinks have had to be worked out. Chief among them has been how to deal with ballots whose all-important security envelopes lack required information or otherwise have been incorrectly marked.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly made a concession to the realities of virus-era voting when it agreed that an absentee voter this fall would need to have only one person, instead of two, serve as a witness when filling out his or her ballot. Requiring just a single witness helps keep voters from having to interact with non-family members outside their social-distancing bubble.
However, the question remained: What if the witness for some reason failed to sign the envelope or failed to give his address? A federal judge, in a lawsuit brought by Democrats, ordered the state to give voters with errors in their paperwork a chance to have a do-over rather than simply tossing the bungled ballot without letting the voter know. But just how to carry out that order proved to be not a simple matter, entangling the State Board of Elections, the state attorney general’s office and Republican legislative chiefs in a flurry of courtroom maneuvers.
Finally, as if a storm were lifting, a court-approved settlement was reached effective Oct. 19  that seems to pass the test of common sense while satisfying understandable partisan interests.
An absentee voter whose ballot lacks a witness signature or adequate address will be given another ballot. There will be no shortcut around the witness rule, meeting a Republican demand. Yet a voter who makes a minor mistake on the envelope, such as failing to sign or signing in the wrong place, will be allowed to “cure” the error by certifying to the correct info.
This may seem like some business best left in the weeds to be poked at by election-law specialists with nothing better to do. But in fact, the stakes are large and involve significant issues of equity.
For instance, a disproportionate number of absentee-by-mail ballots that are flagged for improperly filled-out envelopes come from minority voters. So if mistakes can’t be fixed, those voters are the ones whose voices will be disproportionately muffled. Instructions now going from the State Board to boards in the 100 counties, in line with the recent agreement, appear to strike a reasonable balance guarding against that kind of voter suppression while upholding ballot integrity.
Of course, for this process to have its intended effect of giving every willing voter a fair chance to have his or her vote counted, there has to be enough time for corrections to be made. So it will be helpful if, as another result of the legal action setting this year’s election rules, the period for receipt of absentee ballots is lengthened.
An Oct. 20 ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals , with all 15 of the court’s judges dividing 12-3, would allow that change to take place, as agreed to by the State Board.
So long as a mailed ballot were postmarked by Election Day, it would be counted if it arrived at the county election board by Nov. 12 rather than the current cut-off of Nov. 3. Republicans planned to ask the U.S. Supreme Court  to enforce the earlier date – apparently convinced that the fewer mailed ballots get counted, the better.
The extension, if it holds, would be welcome not only in light of the unprecedented flow of ballots but also of possible delivery delays by the U.S. Postal Service — delays which, it should be noted, our president has both encouraged and cited as an excuse for why an election making heavy use of mailed ballots can’t be trusted. His efforts to undermine the credibility of an election in which polls have shown him trailing can hardly fool anyone as to their motive. But that doesn’t make them any less dangerous to our democracy.
Early vote surge
Another encouraging sign in North Carolina has been the enthusiastic turnout at in-person early voting sites, which opened on Oct. 15. Although some voters have encountered long lines, the process seems to have gone without notable mishap in its early phase.
Poll workers have put much effort into anti-virus precautions such as maintaining distances and disinfecting shared surfaces. And the State Board has been firm in warning against any attempts at voter intimidation by self-appointed poll watchers – perhaps mindful of Trump’s implicit summons to supporters to get in perceived Democratic voters’ faces.
Early voting extends through Oct. 31. Voters may choose any site in their home county; use this tool to find a site . According to the State Board, as of Oct. 22, some 1.7 million of North Carolina’s 7.3 million registered voters already had voted early, in-person – a hefty turnout indeed. Adding absentee ballots cast as of the same date pushes the number of voters who already have spoken to more than 2.4 million.
Many of these folks presumably took to heart the advice coming from voter-advocacy groups and their allies, including the N.C. Council of Churches, to make a plan for voting and to vote without delay. And if some of them couldn’t wait to register their disapproval of the national government’s failure to deal effectively with the pandemic and its wretched consequences, they can hardly be blamed.
The Council and its member faith organizations are mindful that voting is an indispensable way for ordinary citizens to influence public policy choices made in their name.
When some voters are squeezed out of the process, subject to the age-old stratagems of those who hold power and who shape election rules to maintain it, critical needs and concerns can be and unfortunately often are downplayed or cast aside. Think of the need for good-quality public schools. For accessible and affordable health care. For effective housing programs.
A beauty of democracy is that it allows the marginalized along with everyone else to have a voice in charting their future as citizens. North Carolina, despite bucking a stiff wind from those whose priorities are rooted in self-interest, could well be on track to holding an orderly, safe, high-turnout election of which all of us can be proud. In these troubled times, that would be no small achievement. Nor by any means can success be taken for granted.
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.