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First absentee ballots of North Carolina's 2024 primaries to be mailed out Friday

Peggy Defenderfer places a test ballot into a tabulator while completing logic and accuracy testing at the Wake County Board of Elections office in Raleigh Thursday afternoon September 15, 2022.
Jonathon Gruenke
for WUNC
Peggy Defenderfer places a test ballot into a tabulator while completing logic and accuracy testing at the Wake County Board of Elections office in Raleigh Thursday afternoon September 15, 2022.

Early voting in the North Carolina 2024 primaries officially is underway this Friday, with local elections boards sending absentee ballots to voters who requested them.

As of Thursday morning, there were more than 5,000 requests for absentee ballots, according to Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

In a video call with reporters, Brinson Bell said it is possible that by the end of the day Friday, the first ballots will be cast in this year's primaries.

"Overseas and military voters, along with visually impaired voters can request — and return — their ballots through our secure and accessible absentee ballot portal," Brinson Bell explained.

"Folks are waking up to the fact that it's January 2024 and there's an election," she added.

Voters must adapt to new election rules

Brinson Bell and other elections officials have been keen to remind voters of new rules put in place by an elections law passed in October over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto by the Republican-majority North Carolina General Assembly.

The law eliminated a three-day grace period for counting mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day. Absentee ballots must now be returned by the close of polls on Election Day under the new statutory deadline.

And voters must provide a photo ID to cast absentee or in-person ballots. The 2018 law requiring photo ID had been put on hold by a state court that found it would disparately affect Black voters less likely to have the requisite forms of identification.

However, last April, the state Supreme Court, now with a majority of Republican justices, revisited that case in response to a petition by GOP lawmakers and reinstated the photo ID requirement in time for last year's municipal elections.

Voters may obtain a free photo ID from the DMV or their local elections office. Voters who are unable to provide a valid photo identification with their absentee ballot may still cast provisional ballots either by submitting an exception form or by later bringing a photo ID to their elections office.

Valid exceptions for the photo ID requirement include a list of reasonable impediments that could prevent a voter from obtaining the necessary identification such as:

  • A lack of transportation, disability or illness
  • A lack of proper documentation like a birth certificate

State law also provides exceptions to the photo ID requirement for people with a religious objection to being photographed or victims of an officially declared natural disaster within 100 days before the election.

    Exception forms then go to the county's bipartisan elections board, which determines whether or not there are grounds to believe the information on the form is false.
    "That decision has to be unanimous as well," said Paul Cox, general counsel for the State Board of Elections.

    Some absentee ballots in the 2023 municipal elections were 'wrongfully discounted,' an advocacy group says

    Inconsistencies in the way various local boards across North Carolina's 100 counties enforced the photo ID requirement for last fall's municipal elections have raised concerns in the civil and voting rights advocacy community.

    "In some cases, voters’ ID Exception Forms were wrongfully rejected — and their ballots were wrongfully discounted — based on board members’ personal opinions" according to a letter sent this week to Brinson Bell, Cox, and the State Board of Elections by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Common Cause North Carolina and Democracy North Carolina.

    The letter also claimed that some voters participating in the 2023 municipal elections never received notice to return to the County Board to present photo ID after leaving the polling place.

    The groups' letter said their claims draw upon voters' experiences and "our partners in the field who monitored the implementation of voter photo ID this past election."

    According to state elections board data, in last November's municipal elections, 484 voters cast provisional ballots for reasons related to the photo ID requirement, or approximately one-tenth of 1% of the 478,973 total ballots cast statewide.

    More than half of those 484 provisional ballots were counted and 228 were rejected. Forty-three were tossed because the local elections boards denied the voters' exception forms and the remaining 185 were rejected because the voters did not fill out an exception form and then failed to return to their county elections office to present a valid photo ID.

    Cox, the state elections board's general counsel, said a statewide elections conference for state and local officials and board members will be held the first week of February — and that part of the conference will be devoted to reviewing the lessons learned from photo ID implementation in the 2023 municipal elections. Cox added conference attendees will also review the legal requirements for reviewing photo ID copies submitted with absentee ballots as well as exception forms.

    Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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