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N.C. more prepared than other states for onslaught of mail voting, but still faces challenges

North Carolina has safeguards for voting by mail that other states lack. But the state also must anticipate explosive growth in mail voting, potential delays with the postal service, and a system designed for a much lower volume of mail-in ballots.

Concerns about election security rose when the U.S. Postal Service warned officials in North Carolina and 45 other states that mail ballots may arrive too late to be counted. The warning became a controversy after President Trump opposed giving USPS $25 billion in coronavirus relief money, saying the funding would enable “universal mail-in voting.”

North Carolina doesn’t allow mail-only elections. 

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein plans to sue USPS, arguing recent cost-cutting measures violated federal law. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the House to return Saturday, Aug. 22, from its summer break to vote on funding for the agency. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy then walked back the operational changes until after the election.

Despite the back-and-forth, North Carolina has safeguards that should help if mail ballots flood the postal system. Along with 34 other states, N.C. allows the full range of voting options. Any voter can request an absentee ballot. We have early voting, aka in-person absentee voting. Voters using the early voting option can register the day they vote. And, of course, voters can cast ballots in person on election day.

County election boards are already accepting absentee ballot requests. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, North Carolina starts mailing requested absentee ballots earlier than any other state — 60 days before an election. Seven other states mail ballots to voters between 45 and 50 days before an election. More than a dozen states mail absentee ballots fewer than 30 days before an election.

Voters who wait until the last minute to request a mail ballot should get theirs before election day. North Carolina is one of 13 states that stops accepting requests seven days before the election. Nine states accept requests as late as the day before the election.

Voters who don’t trust USPS to deliver a mail ballot on time can drop theirs off at their county elections board until the time polls close; an elections worker will certify the ballot was delivered.

With or without extra federal funding, local elections officials say people should cast their ballots early. The deadline for requesting ballots is problematic.

“That’s probably been unrealistic for a decade or more,” Gerry Cohen, Wake County Board of Elections member, told Carolina Journal.  “The [USPS] letter says not that we can’t deliver the ballots, but that if you wait too long, it’ll be too late. … The best way to ensure that voters aren’t disenfranchised by any delays in the postal service is to do everything early.”

Local elections staff are scrambling to process requests. North Carolina has already exceeded the number of absentee ballots requested in 2016. In the last presidential election, just 5% of ballots came by mail, and the state recorded about 231,000 absentee ballot requests.

The state is nearly 11 times ahead of the requests made during this time in 2016. If trends continue, North Carolina could mail out 500,000 ballots on the first day, Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawba College, told CJ

In the scramble to scan ballots, finish data entry, and proofread for mistakes, Wake County’s staff is working evenings and weekends. Some counties face a four- to five-day backlog in processing requests, says Cohen. 

Wake County has already blown past the 32,000 requests for absentee ballots received in 2016, with 52,527 requests processed as of Monday, Aug. 17, and nine weeks remaining before the deadline, Cohen said. 

“The system is overwhelmed,” Cohen said. “Until the app comes online, it’s processing paper. There’s a lot of resources being thrown at it. … There’s a huge backlog.” 

Starting Sept. 1, voters can bypass USPS and request absentee ballots with a smartphone app. Election officials believe the app will reduce the paper backlog — and give voters an opportunity to dodge any delays with the Postal Service, said Pat Gannon, spokesman for the N.C. Board of Elections.

North Carolina also has a jump start on other states that begin processing ballots closer to election day. It allows election officials to begin processing absentee ballots five weeks before the election and start counting them 14 days early, though no results are reported until the polls close election day. 

“We believe the system is prepared to handle them,” Gannon said. “Obviously, this is a huge increase in the number of absentee ballots that our counties are processing. We’ve known that this is coming for a while, so we’ve been able to plan for it.”

Absentee ballots that arrive three days after Nov. 3 will be counted if postmarked on or before that date. During the presidential primary in Wake County, some 753 ballots arrived during that grace period, totaling 17.4% of the 4,339 total absentee ballots, Cohen said. 

“My biggest concern right now is what happens the week prior to election day,” Bitzer told CJ. “Could we see a rush during the last couple days to get the ballots back? All of that could conceivably be avoided if the voters decide before that week who they’re going to vote for.”