Being Heard At The Polls Is Still A Struggle For Many North Carolinians

Sep 29, 2020

While going to the ballot box on Election Day is an important ritual for many voters, the coronavirus pandemic has introduced a change in routine. As of Tuesday, Sept. 28, the North Carolina State Board of Elections has received more than a million absentee ballot requests. At this time in 2016, the Board of Elections had received just over 100,000. While some voters hope to stay healthy by avoiding the polls, mail-in voting still presents some anxiety and uncertainty, especially for historically disenfranchised voters like African Americans and Latinos.

North Carolina’s mail-in ballots come with instructions in English but none in Spanish. And in 2018, Black voters were more than twice as likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected than white voters, according to a study conducted by ProPublica and WRAL News.

In an effort to decrease voter disenfranchisement from mail-in voting, the legislature passed a bipartisan bill earlier this year which reduces the number of witnesses required from two to one and streamlines the absentee ballot request process. The Democratic-majority Board of Elections is also going through a settlement to allow voters to correct rejected ballots, but the settlement has faced opposition from Republican state legislators.

Policies and practices that make voting more difficult for otherwise-eligible voters are not new. In the Jim Crow era, voting laws and rules were enacted specifically to prevent African Americans from exercising their right to vote, and some of those laws persist today. Host Frank Stasio talks with WUNC race and Southern culture reporter Leoneda Inge about one of these laws and the story of Lanisha Bratcher Jones, a North Carolina woman charged with a felony for voting while on probation.  Stasio also talks with North Carolina Central University School of Law professor Irving Joyner about the North Carolina State Board of Elections’ efforts to decrease voter disenfranchisement in mail-in voting. Stasio also speaks with Vickie Shea, who volunteers with Democracy NC as an election protector, about what she looks out for at polling sites on Election Day to ensure that all voters can feel confident in submitting their ballots.

Interview Highlights 

Lanisha Bratcher Jones was charged with voter fraud in 2019. She did not know that she could not vote while on probation during in the 2016 election.
Credit Leoneda Inge

Leoneda Inge on the number of people found to have voted illegally after a 2016 election audit:

Well over 400 of them were people who voted on felony parole. It wasn't people pretending to be their grandmother or some other dead relative, or voting two or three times. … The other thing that was very common amongst these people: They're all black. And if you get to talk to them — of what I've heard and people who have spoken with them — they said they did not know. They had no idea that being still on parole meant they couldn't vote.

"With the COVID-19, it is anticipated that roughly 40 to 45% of registered voters in the state will use the mail-in ballot in order to minimize any possible harms from COVID-19."

Irving Joyner on why making mail-in voting accessible is so important this year:

With the COVID-19, it is anticipated that roughly 40 to 45% of registered voters in the state will use the mail-in ballot in order to minimize any possible harms from COVID-19. Particularly impacted by this are people who have limited mobility, obviously people who are immunocompromised, people who are in nursing homes or congregate facilities, and [people] who can't get out to the polling place.

Vickie Shea on her experience as an election protector volunteer:

When we announce by calling out or just talking to people and say: We're nonpartisan election protection volunteers. Let us know if you have any problems. In my experience, people just relax a little bit. You see their shoulders go down, and they give a faint smile. And it just adds a layer of reassurance that somebody is there watching — just a regular person watching with access to resources if they do have some kind of problem.