The coronavirus is interfering with state elections, and it could make the runoff for the Republican nominee in N.C.’s 11th U.S. Congressional District problematic.

Concerns about COVID-19 pushed the runoff from May 12 to June 23. Candidate Madison Cawthorn asked for the runoff after finishing second to Lynda Bennett, who has the endorsement of White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who occupied the seat before joining the Trump administration. 

The N.C. State Board of Elections says the state can’t use mail-only ballots as a solution for the runoff. In-person voting has to be an option. But some advocates want that to change as soon as possible. They’re pushing the state to expand voting by mail. It’s an innovation dividing many North Carolinians, with memories of last year’s ballot-harvesting scandal in the 9th Congressional District still fresh.

“This is changing the way we’re thinking about everything, including elections,” said Bob Phillips, Common Cause N.C. executive director. “Depending on what the world looks like, in-person voting might not be advisable in November.”

The challenges from COVID-19 have thrown the state’s election process into chaos, disrupting the state’s ability to recruit poll workers, create voting sites, and review ballots. County boards of elections have begun to meet telephonically, but they cannot virtually review absentee and provisional ballots.

Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order March 23, banning gatherings of more than 50 people, and the White House has recommended against gatherings of more than 10 people. The social distancing measures include voting places.

States like Washington claim an advantage over North Carolina — all their primary election voting is done by mail. Residents will avoid crowds at polling places, though state authorities have asked residents not to lick mail envelopes. 

Common Cause N.C. has pushed the legislature to ease restrictions on mail-in ballots for years. In North Carolina, and across the nation, COVID-19 is giving new ammunition to arguments for a system like Washington’s mail-only ballots. 

“First and foremost, that might mean making the current absentee vote-by-mail system a little easier,” Phillips said. “We certainly don’t want to have the alternative — having an in-person election where people might not be comfortable going to their precinct and voting.”

But the 9th District debacle gives many pause. Republican nominee Mark Harris led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes on election day 2018. But the State Board of Elections refused to certify the results after allegations of fraud arose. Harris withdrew his candidacy, and then-state Sen. Dan Bishop beat McCready in a 2019 special election.

Leslie McCrae Dowless later was indicted of running a ballot-harvesting scheme in the 9th District during the 2016 and 2018 elections. Four others were charged.

The General Assembly responded with legislation to combat absentee ballot fraud.

“There’s so many reasons why mail-in ballots are not a good idea,” said Hans von Spakovsky, Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow. “Absentee and mail-in ballots are the easiest ballot to cheat with. They are voted in the absence of supervision by election officials. There’s no way to prevent fraud or intimidation of voters.”

By law, N.C. residents can vote with no-excuse absentee mail-ballots, or in-person on election day and during the early voting period.

And state officials are trying to keep it that way. If quarantine measures quash in-person voting, the state isn’t prepared to vote entirely by mail. 

Making the transition would require secure drop boxes, high-speed ballot scanners, and coordination with the postal service. Just 4% of voters cast absentee ballots by mail in the 2016 election, says State Board of Elections spokesman Patrick Gannon.

Getting the infrastructure in place to process so many mail-only ballots would take more than a year, according to the John Noce, Buncombe County Election Services election education specialist. 

“You can’t switch on the flip of a dime. We have every intention of making sure all types of voting are available if at all possible,” Gannon said. “It would be very, very difficult to switch overnight from a mostly in-person to an all by-mail system.”

So the state is working to make sure polling places are appropriately sanitized. The board hopes quarantine measures will become less necessary before the next elections. 

If optimism fails, the board could further delay the 11th District runoff, Gannon said. 

The board has amended the state’s emergency rulemaking procedures — explicitly ushering the virus under the definition of natural disasters. The definition now includes natural catastrophes that would make it “impossible or extremely hazardous” to vote in-person, where voters risk “a significant risk of physical harm.”

Further complicating matters, election workers tend to be older, putting them at risk for complications from COVID-19, which is more severe in people more than 65 years old, says Wake County Board of Elections member Gerry Cohen. And mail-only ballots require people to copy their ID, possibly making it more difficult for people in rural areas to vote. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the normal schedule for the election and impaired critical components of election administration,” wrote Karen Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections.