NC Election Officials Eagerly Await Court Ruling As They Set Aside Some Absentee Ballots

Oct 9, 2020

An unmarked envelope and absentee ballot for a voter in Orange County.
Credit Amy Jeffries / WUNC

Tens of thousands of absentee ballots already returned by North Carolina voters have been processed without issue. But a much smaller number has been set aside – held up while elections officials eagerly await guidance on how to cure deficiencies like missing witness information.

Michael Dickerson, the Elections Director for Mecklenburg County, said his county has already accepted and processed around 50,000 absentee ballots. Only around 600 have been put on hold, but many of the voters who cast them haven't been notified of the problem.

"I have ballots sitting in my vault right now in a special box,” Dickerson said.

The most prevalent problem among deficient ballots is missing witness information.

A bi-partisan bill enacted in June requires one witness for an absentee ballot. The return envelope must be marked with the witness's signature and address. Dickerson noted that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people are casting absentee ballots for the first time.

"So it's a new experience to them,” he said.

Phil Lehman, who chairs the Durham County Board of Elections, provided an example of the kinds of missteps made by voters submitting absentee ballots missing key witness information.

"The voter might have a roommate who is the witness but they live at the same address," Lehman explained. "So he doesn't put his address down, that kind of thing."

A sample of what the witness section looks like on 2020 absentee ballots in North Carolina.
Credit NC Board of Elections

Voting rights groups filed multiple lawsuits against the North Carolina Board of Elections to ease rules like the witness requirement, a persistent problem that has resulted in ballots being rejected in prior elections. In a proposed settlement, the elections board offered to let voters fix witness deficiencies by affidavit rather than submitting a new ballot.

But state Republican lawmakers slammed the proposal, accusing the Democratic-led elections board of seeking to circumvent the witness requirement and rig the elections. They sued to block the settlement, and now a federal judge is expected to rule in the coming days on the required process for curing deficient ballots.

"If the judge can rule and we can get going again next week, that will still give us ample time to get these back out to the voters,” Dickerson said.

Lehman also expressed confidence that there's plenty of time to get the cure process back on track. But he's concerned voters will be confused by all the legal wrangling.

"And they're worried about 'Is their ballot going to count?' You know, 'When am I going to hear from my board of elections?’” Lehman said.

In the western part of the state, Buncombe County has already processed more than three times the total number of absentee ballots returned in 2016. About 300 have been set aside because of deficiencies.

But Buncombe Elections Director Corinne Duncan said her office will weather the storm.

Said Duncan: "We have rocky waters but our ship is solid."