Absentee ballots in 2014 represent cost increase for board of elections

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The number of mail-in absentee votes in 2014 wasn’t a record when compared to presidential election years, but increased over the 2010 elections and represented an increased cost when compared to previous midterm years.

A total of 1,308 absentee ballots were mailed during the 2014 general election — 1,301 civilian and seven military — according to statistics provided by the Rowan County Board of Election. An additional seven military ballots were emailed to voters, said Elections Specialist Laura Russell. To send all 1,308 ballots, Russell said the board of elections spent $1,556.52 for postage — $1.19 per ballot.

The number of absentee ballots is significantly lower than 2012, when about 3,000 ballots were mailed, but 2014 general election absentee ballots were higher than 2010, when just over 600 were mailed.

Russell said the number of ballots is significant, but not so great as to cause any kind of financial strain. The cost to send absentee ballots is paid for through a specific budget line item for postage. In fiscal year 2015, Rowan County budgeted $15,000 for the board of elections’ postage costs. In the prior fiscal year, the board of election spent about $7,000 for postage. The line item covers all the office’s mail, not just absentee ballots.

“It is a lot,” Russell said about absentee ballots. “This year there were several groups that did targeted mailings where they were mailing people a request form. Some people sent them back not even knowing what they asked for and got a ballot in the mail.”

Of the 1,315 total ballots sent — both mail and email — 1,006 were accepted. The percentage of returned and absentee ballots was also higher than average, according to Russell.

Third-party groups mailing out absentee ballot request forms is likely due to a state law change, she said.

“When the state changed the law so that any ballot request had to be on the state form and the state form could be duplicated by anybody, that opened up the floodgates basically,” she said. “Because before they would have to request directly from us. Now, anybody can request that form and distribute it to voters.”

Catawba provost and political science Professor Michael Bitzer said third-party groups that mail out absentee ballot forms increasingly target die-hard voters who they know will support their side.

“I think it’s about the partisan turnout,” Bitzer said. “Campaigns and candidates are very risk-averse and they want guarantees. They want to go after those for-sure voters.”

He said that third-party groups, particularly ones that lean conservative, may not know with 100 percent certainty which candidates voters will choose, but by targeting registered Republicans, the chance is greater that voters will choose a conservative. Third-party groups are more likely to send ballots to voters registered with a party because there’s a greater chance he or she is unpersuadable, Bitzer said.

“Absentee voting, broadly defined as early voting, has become much more prominent in North Carolina since 2008,” Bitzer said. “The reason I say that is in the presidential election years about 55 percent of all voters cast come before election day.”

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246