Editorial: Make sure election resources adequate for surge

Published 12:42 am Sunday, July 26, 2020

Predictions about record mail-in voting numbers appear to be well on their way to coming true this year. 

With roughly three months until Election Day, the county has received almost 700 requests for absentee ballots. That represents a steep increase from the fewer than 200 received at this time in 2016, the previous presidential election year. 

Said another way, the county’s number of mail-in requests is currently 3.5 times what it was four years ago. 

The partisan breakdown of mail-in absentee ballot requests is as follows: 

• Democrats, 320 requests. 

• Unaffiliateds, 244 requests. 

• Republicans, 122 requests. 

• Green Party, three requests. 

• Libertarians, one request.

The Rowan County Board of Elections says just 13 of the requests it has received are from members of the military or those stationed overseas.

Local figures are actually slightly behind the state, which has seen mail-in requests numbers five times greater than 2016, according to Old North State Politics, a blog created by Catawba College professor Michael Bitzer. 

Across the state, rural counties are just double their 2016 total to date, while urban counties are 5.6 times greater 2016 and suburban counties are 5.9 times greater. Interestingly, Rowan County, considered suburban by the Office of Management and Budget, is seeing increases that aren’t quite as steep as its peers.

Females are 56% of ballot requests. Males are 39% and undesignated or unreported gender requests are 5%.

Whites are 75% of requests statwide, with the next racial group being Black North Carolinians at 13%.

The higher-than-usual numbers are likely the product of worries about going to polling places to cast ballot while COVID-19 remains a concern. A mail-in ballot eliminates worries about crowds. Voting mail-in absentee also is easier this year because of reforms by the N.C. General Assembly, including the fact that only one witness signature is needed and that ballot requests can now be emailed or faxed.

It’s realistic to imagine a scenario were more than 10,000 Rowan County voters request mail-in ballots in 2020 — a situation that would be unprecedented. If the COVID-19 outbreak worsens in Rowan County or North Carolina, the pace of mail-in requests could quicken and produce a total more like 15,000 or 20,000. 

As the election grew closer in 2016, naturally, more people requested mail-in ballots. The county should expect the same this year. October 2016, in particular, marked a steep increase in the number of mail-in ballots requested.

All ballots won’t be completed and returned, of course. Slightly fewer will be accepted. 

Requests, though, are the best advanced indicator we have of knowing how many people will vote by mail.

This week, the Rowan County Board of Elections will discuss and potentially settle on a plan for early voting. Because of its increasing popularity in recent elections, early voting is equally deserving of attention from elected officials and the general public. More time to vote gives the public a better chance to socially distance at polling places and still cast a ballot in a timely manner. 

In short order, though, the local board of elections as well as Rowan County commissioners should publicly talk about what resources they have to count mail-in ballots in a timely manner and whether any additional funding is needed. Commissioners have a regular finance report on their agenda. It’s worthwhile to ask for a regular election preparedness report — whether that’s in the form of a letter included with agenda documents or a presentation during a public meeting. 

On a federal level, Rowan County’s congressmen — Reps. Ted Budd and Richard Hudson — should advocate for robust financial support for the U.S. Postal Service, which will be critical in returning ballots to be counted and is already in a difficult financial position. 

Voting is one of the most important things we do as Americans — every year if you live in a North Carolina municipality and every even-numbered year otherwise. The public deserves to know whether Rowan County, North Carolina and the country are ready to provide a safe election in the middle of a global pandemic or that the officials are ready to step up with additional resources if not.