I have always enjoyed voting on election day. It always makes me feel like I am an active participant in whatever happens that day after the polls close. Sometimes my preferred candidate won and sometimes they did not, but it was always exciting to cast my vote at some point during the day and then to go home that evening and watch the results.
Like you, I came to expect to know the winners on election night. Then, 2000 came and we all watched as hanging chads and Florida became a media frenzy and we all focused our attention on how the presidential election dispute would be resolved. The United States Supreme Court didn’t settle the dispute until December 12, 2000 (35 days after the November 7, 2000 date of election) with its decision in Bush v. Gore 531 U.S. 98 (2000). Regardless of whether your candidate won or lost in 2000, the one thing we all will forever have in common following the election of 2000 is that we can no longer expect to go to bed on that first Tuesday in November and know for sure who won the election.
Americans hold dear their right to vote, but previous generations had to fight hard for the rights we have today. On August 18, 2020, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution which guarantees women the right to vote. Despite the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1870 which prohibited the denial of one’s right to vote on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, African Americans did not have the same access to the polls and it took the civil rights movement and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to more fully guarantee the right of African Americans to participate in our election process. In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution expanded the right to vote to those who were at least eighteen years old.
These were hard-fought battles to include more Americans in our electoral system. The next battles would be fought at the individual state level regarding how to make voting easier for all of us. Some states moved more quickly than others, but most states have tried to provide additional ways to vote rather than just in-person on election day. Sorry for those of you in MO, KY, MS, AL, SC, CT, PA, RI, NH. Hopefully soon, your states will join the rest of the nation in encouraging all citizens to vote by increasing the opportunities to do so.
Even prior to the 2000 election, North Carolina was well on its way to making voting easier with one-stop voting and no-excuse absentee voting. Going back to the 1970s, the North Carolina General Assembly was making and revising laws to allow for voting on other than election day. In addition to in-person election day voting, North Carolina voters now have early one-stop voting and “no excuse” vote by mail as ways to cast your ballots.
In 1977 North Carolina allowed one-stop voting to anyone who was ill, disabled, or knew they would be out of town. A voter could go to the county board of elections and request an absentee ballot and mark the ballot at the same time.
In 1999, North Carolina expanded absentee voting by allowing “no-excuse” absentee voting for any even-numbered year election, thereby ensuring the ability to cast a no-excuse absentee ballot for any presidential election given they only happen in even-numbered years.
Additionally, in 1999, North Carolina expanded on the one-stop sites. Counties were allowed to place additional one-stop voting sites throughout their county so that voters could go to places other than just the local county elections board office.
In 2001, North Carolina defined the early voting period to begin on the third Thursday before an election and end on the Saturday before an election. Accordingly, for this year’s election, early voting starts on Thursday, October 15, 2020, and ends on Saturday, October 31, 2020. Any person who is not already registered at their current address can go to any early voting one-stop location and “same-day” register and cast your ballot for the election. A person needs to bring one of the following to the same-day register: 1) a North Carolina Driver license with current name and address, 2) other photo ID by a government agency showing your current name and address, 3) a copy of a utility bill, or a bank statement, or a government check, or a paycheck, or other government document showing your current name and address, or 4) a current college photo ID with proof of campus housing.
When you “same-day” register, the local county election board will investigate to confirm that you are eligible, and your vote will count unless they determine that you are ineligible. Much has been said recently about attempts to vote multiple times or to vote fraudulently. It should be pointed out and made clear that N.C.G.S. §163-275 makes it a Class I felony to do anything of the sort and the North Carolina Attorney General, Josh Stein, has made it clear that his office would take action against those that would attempt to vote fraudulently. Additionally, Karen Brinson Bell, the Executive Director of the State Board of Elections points out the criminality and the additional risks of operating outside our system of voting.
So, what’s my point in providing all of the above background? While I love to vote on election day, COVID-19 has thrown me a curve-ball. I wanted to explore what would be involved in requesting a “no excuse” ballot in North Carolina and I wondered if I would still have the same level of excitement about casting my vote using this different method.
Here’s what I have learned. It is very easy and I am still excited about the election. I sent in a 2020 State Absentee Ballot Request Form to my local county board of elections. The electronic portal to make the request or the paper form and the address to your local office can be found here.
I received three things in an envelope. First, I received the official ballot. Second, I received two double-sided printed pages of instructions – really one page double-sided with instructions and one page double-sided with the criminal laws that would be broken if you attempt to vote fraudulently. Lastly, I received a large return envelope with places for signatures on the back.
Here’s the fine print:
1) You need to place ($.55) 55 cents worth of postage on the return envelope if you are mailing it rather than taking it personally to your county board of elections office. The
mailing address is listed on the first page of instructions, but your return envelope should already have a mailing label affixed with your local board’s mailing address. The physical address is also listed on the first page of instructions if you plan to drop it off personally at your local board of elections office rather than mail.
2) You need a witness. (generally speaking, someone over the age of 18 who is not a candidate). If you are in a hospital, clinic, nursing home, or adult care facility, then your witness must provide additional certifications that are listed on the back of the return envelope.
3) You need to mark your ballot
4) Your witness should be able to see that you are marking your ballot (they do not need to see who you are voting for and certainly are not entitled to know who you voted for, just that you were the one who marked the ballot and placed it into the return envelope and sealed it)
5) You need to place your marked ballot into the return envelope and seal the envelope. It has self-adhesive tape which makes it easy. No licking required thank goodness.
6) You need to sign your name on the back of the return envelope in the section on the envelope that is labeled “Step 2”
7) Your witness needs to print their name and address and also place their signature on the back of the return envelope in the section on the envelope that is labeled “Step 3”.
8) If you need assistance in marking the ballot, then there is an additional section for the voter assistant to fill out.
9) Place the return envelope in the mail (make sure you put the right amount of postage on it) or take it personally to your board of elections office. Note, if you are personally dropping off your ballot, it must be you or your near relative or legal guardian who takes it into the local elections board office. Logs are kept and the rules require that the voter personally be the one to drop off their own ballot (no ballot harvesting is allowed in North Carolina – Just ask those involved in the recent 9th Congressional District attempt to do so) or it must be the near relative or legal guardian as defined under the law. If you have questions, the North Carolina State Board of Elections has plenty of information here.
Once you have returned your marked ballot, your local board of elections conducts a canvass within 10 days / the election and transmits those results to the State Board of Elections which is required to complete the statewide canvass of votes by the third Tuesday following the election.
Moral of the story for me? We live in divided times. After the 2000 election, I am at peace with the prospect that I may not know the outcome of any given election on election night. I am confident that North Carolina has a safe and secure vote-by-mail system. An interesting thing about North Carolina is that the absentee ballots are scanned into the tabulator when they are returned to the local boards of election, but not counted until election day. That is, the boards of election do the hard work prior to election day so that the only thing left to do is for the tabulator to do the math. Pretty easy and quick at that point such that the unofficial results can be known almost immediately upon the polls closing in North Carolina.
Most importantly, I remain excited about participating in our election process, regardless of how I cast my vote. I now realize that I don’t have to go to the polls on election day to be excited about an election. The excitement, it turns out, is just knowing that I put my vote out there and that I participated in the process. Generations fought hard for all of us to have the right to vote and I intend to honor them by doing so. I hope you will do the same. No matter who you are voting for or whether you plan to vote in person or by mail, find a way to exercise your right to vote.