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NC Voter Guide: Everything You Need To Know About Early Voting, Mail-In Ballots

Natalie Dudas-Thomas

WUNC has all the coverage you need this election season. Check out our 2020 Voter Guide for information on absentee ballots and more. And be sure to check out our Races To Watch stories for everything you need to know about candidates in statewide and legislative elections. Subscribe to WUNC's Politics Podcast, and follow reporters Rusty Jacobs and Jeff Tiberii on Twitter.

The North Carolina General Assembly recently enacted legislation to ease absentee-by-mail voting this year and to make polls safer for in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

The state is putting up matching funds to get federal money that will help counties acquire protective equipment like masks, plexiglass shields, sanitizer and individual pens and styluses for voters and poll workers. Voters should prepare for socially and physically-distanced spacing at polling sites to prevent transmissiting and contracting the coronavirus.

This year, for the first time in North Carolina, an online absentee ballot request portal is available on the North Carolina State Board of Elections website.

Check Out Our Vote By Mail Tool Below:

Also, for this year only, under the recent legislation a voter only needs one witness instead of two to submit an absentee ballot. And, in addition to submitting an absentee request form directly at one’s county elections board office, voters may submit requests by email or fax.

Absentee-by-mail requests in North Carolina are way up this year and the North Carolina State Board of Elections has prepared a list of Frequently Asked Questions about absentee-by-mail voting.

North Carolina voters will make important decisions at the polls this year. Not only will they cast their ballots in the race for the White House, but they will also vote in races for governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. Senate, and various local legislative seats.

Here’s everything you need to know about voting in North Carolina and Election Day 2020.

Absentee ballot north carolina election
Credit Gerry Broome / AP
Stacks of ballot envelopes waiting to be mailed are seen at the Wake County Board of Elections in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. North Carolina is scheduled to begin sending out more than 600,000 requested absentee ballots to voters on Friday.
How do I register to vote this year?

First things first: Head to this page on the North Carolina State Board of Elections website, enter in your information and see if you’re registered to vote already. If you are, great! If not, there’s a few options.

  • Head to the North Carolina State Board of Elections website, download this form, fill it out and send it in by mail.
  • You can also register to vote online through the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles if you have a state-issued driver’s license or DMV-issued I.D. Voter registration applications submitted fewer than 25 days before an election will not be processed until after the election.
  • Because of the National Voter Registration Act, there are several other state agencies you can also go through to register to vote. A list of those agencies can be found here.
Voters fill out their ballots at the Hamilton County Board of Elections as early voting begins statewide, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016, in Cincinnati.
Credit John Minchillo / ASSOCIATED PRESS
What is the deadline for regular voter registration for the general election?

Voters must be registered to vote 25 days before Election Day. So, you need to be registered by Friday, Oct. 9.

Ok, what if I missed the deadline. Is there a way I can still register?

Yes, but you’ll have to do so in-person at a one-stop site during early voting. This is called same-day registration. Voters can visit a One-Stop Early Voting to register and vote on the same day between Thursday, Oct. 15 through Saturday, Oct. 31.

What is same-day registration and how does it work?

Photo: 'Vote Here' sign in English and Spanish
Credit Erik Hersman / Flickr

Folks choosing the same-day registration route must complete and sign a North Carolina Voter Registration Application and provide proof of residency by bringing one of the following:

  • A North Carolina driver’s license.
  • A photo I.D. issued by a government agency, as long as it shows the cardholders name and address.
  • A copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document showing the voter’s name and address.
  • A current college photo I.D. card paired with proof of on-campus residency.

The county board of elections will review the registration of the voter within two business days. The vote will be counted unless the board determines that the voter was not qualified to vote.

How do I know if I'm eligible to vote in NC?

As long as you’re:

  • A U.S. citizen
  • 18 years or older by Election Day
  • A resident of the county you’re voting in for at least 30 days before Election Day
  • Someone who is not serving a felony sentence, probation or parole

… then you’re good!

And where can I vote in-person early?

Head to this page on the North Carolina Board of Elections website and select your county from the dropdown menu. A Google Map should populate on the right side of your screen with sites where you can vote early. For example, there are 14 early voting locations in Durham County. Open hours for each location may vary.

I don't want to vote early. When is Election Day?

Voter stickers
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

Election Day this year falls on Tuesday, Nov. 3. Polls will open at 6:30 a.m. and will remain open through 7:30 p.m. If you’re in line by 7:30 p.m., you will still be able to cast your ballot.

Polling places are typically at their busiest in the early mornings and late afternoons, when folks are going to and from work. To avoid potentially lengthy lines, aim for visiting your polling place in the mid-morning or early afternoon.

Can I vote by-mail?

Yes. Any registered voter in North Carolina can vote via an absentee ballot by-mail.

Update, 10/28: If you're still planning on submitting an absentee ballot, the best course of action would be to drop it off in-person at your county elections office, or at a one-stop early voting site. However, those early voting sites will close on Saturday, Oct. 31. Absentee ballots cannot be dropped off in-person at polls on Election Day, Nov. 3. If you wait until Election Day, you must drop off your absentee ballot at your local board of elections office, and you must do-so by 5 p.m. If you are voting by mail, send it in sooner rather than later.

And how do I go about getting an absentee ballot?

You’ll have to request and then fill out an official state absentee ballot request form.

Credit Ron Doke / Flickr

An online absentee ballot request portal is available on the North Carolina State Board of Elections website at Again, this is a first-time thing in North Carolina for 2020. By using the online ballot request portal, you don’t have to fill out a paper request form.

You can download one online from the North Carolina State Board of Elections website, or pick one up at your county’s board of elections office. You can also contact your county’s board of elections office and have one mailed to you. Request forms and instructions are also available online in Spanish.

The portal also allows military members and folks working outside of the country to request and return their absentee ballot online.

Ballots will be mailed out beginning on Sept. 4. After that date, if you do not receive your ballot within a week after requesting one, contact your county board of elections.

What is the deadline to get an absentee ballot?

Your county’s board of elections office must have received your request by 5 p.m. on Oct. 27. According to the Carolina Public Press, elections experts recommend that voters submit their request for absentee by-mail ballots by Oct. 15.

Do I need a witness for my absentee ballot?

Yes, but only one witness is required this year. The witness cannot be younger than 18, a candidate for an election, or a patient at a hospital or similar health care facility.

Update: Witnesses must provide a printed name, address – even if voter and the witness share the same address – and a signature. A court ruling in October cemented the requirement that if a ballot is missing the witness's signature, then the voter's ballot must be rejected and the county board of elections will issue a new ballot to the voter. That voter can then fill out the ballot and return it, or opt to vote in person. Missing witness information may be solved by a voter affidavit.

Related Coverage: Election Officials Eagerly Await Court Ruling As They Set Aside Some Absentee Ballots

Related Coverage: Court Lets North Carolina Keep Absentee Deadline Extension

What is the deadline to mail back an absentee ballot?

The voted absentee ballot must be returned to the county board of elections no later than 5 p.m. on Election Day — which, again, is Tuesday, Nov. 3. Absentee ballots received after that deadline will only be counted if they are postmarked on or before Election Day and received by mail no later than 5 p.m. on Nov. 6. Ballots without a postmark must be received by Election Day.

The U.S. Postal Service suggests that those folks voting absentee ballot by-mail send their ballot back in no later than Friday, Oct. 30. According to the Carolina Public Press, some election experts recommend sending it back earlier, no later than Oct. 25.

At a senate hearing on Aug. 21, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said, “Vote early.”

Update: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled with a 12-3 majority vote that the state elections board may extend the deadline for counting ballots post-marked by – but received after – Election Day. Under state law, the deadline had been three days after Election Day, which falls this year on Nov. 6. That deadline has been extended up to nine days after Election Day – Nov.  12.

Again, ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day, Nov. 3. State Republican lawmakers can – and have signaled they likely will – challenge this decision at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The bottom line is this: Voters should strive to get their ballots in as soon as possible.

According to a state elections board memo guiding county boards, if there are any deficiencies with an absentee envelope, the county board of elections shall contact the voter in writing within one business day of identifying the deficiency to inform the voter there is an issue with their absentee ballot.

Related Coverage: North Carolina Scrambles To Inform Voters Of Absentee Errors

Related Coverage: Judge Weighing North Carolina Absentee Ballot Procedures

Board of Elections absentee north carolina vote
Credit Gerry Broome / AP
Workers prepare absentee ballots for mailing at the Wake County Board of Elections in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. North Carolina is scheduled to begin sending out more than 600,000 requested absentee ballots to voters on Friday.
And how can I send in my absentee ballot?

Absentee ballots can be returned by mail via the U.S. Postal Service, or:

  • By commercial courier service (DHL, FedEx or UPS).
  • In-person at your county board of elections office.
  • In-person at an open early voting site in your county. However, these will close on Oct. 31.

Also, if you are sending your absentee ballot back via USPS, you will need a 55-cent stamp. No elected official or advocate can pay for that, by the way.
Again, you cannot drop your ballot off at a polling place on Election Day. Take it to your local board of elections office by 5 p.m. If you are voting by mail, send it in sooner rather than later.

Can I vote in person if my ballot was mailed to me?

Changed your mind? No problem. You can still vote in-person if you requested an absentee ballot, but did not return it. The North Carolina State Board of Elections says that your absentee ballot will be “spoiled” after you vote in-person. That means: if you already returned your absentee ballot, you cannot vote in-person. Again, you cannot vote twice.

How do I volunteer at a polling place?

The North Carolina State Board of Elections has a page on its website dedicated to volunteers and setting them up with polling places. Check that out here. Also, check with your county’s board of elections website, like this page that Wake County has.

I heard my polling place might change this year. How do I find out where to go if I vote in person?

The North Carolina State Board of Elections website has a page for that, too. Click this link, plug in your address and your polling place should pop up.

Why is there so much concern about mailing in ballots and the postal service this year?

It is expected that many more people will vote by-mail this year due to concerns from the coronavirus pandemic.

Credit Neuershausen via Flickr /

While the USPS has warned states that it may not be able to meet deadlines for delivering by-mail ballots, President Donald Trump has exacerbated the issue with a few fear-mongering messages. In one tweet on July 21, he claimed that mail-in voting would “lead to the most CORRUPT ELECTION in our Nation’s History.” Trump said in a separate tweet that the USPS has been “failing for many decades.”

On Aug. 26, Trump shifted his blame from the USPS to election workers, saying, “The problem is when they dump all these [ballots] in front of a few people who are counting them, and they're going to count them wrong.” On Aug. 27, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to answer questions and turn over evidence about USPS policy changes within 10 days.

How are local officials responding?

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein is part of a group of Democratic state AG’s suing the USPS over policy changes they say have undermined mail-in voting. The lawsuit is aimed at Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. In a statement, Stein said, “We especially need the Postal Service to be delivering mail on time during a pandemic and weeks before an election that will see more North Carolinians vote by mail than ever before.”

On Sept. 4, North Carolina was the first state to send out ballots for the 2020 general election.

North Carolina has more than 7.1 million registered voters. As of Sept. 8, they had requested more than 707,000 absentee ballots, according to the Associated Press. That's more than 16 times the number of requests at that point in 2016.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections has an FAQ on their own that addresses these questions and others. Check that out here.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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