North Carolina scrambles to inform voters of absentee errors

Published 11:50 pm Wednesday, October 21, 2020

By Jonathan Drew and Bryan Anderson
Associated Press

DURHAM — Time was dwindling for thousands of North Carolina voters to fix absentee voting errors as elections officials hustled out an updated process for handling mail-in ballot problems two weeks before Election Day.

Court battles had halted processing of ballots mailed back with deficiencies from Oct. 4 until the state issued new guidance Monday. State and federal judges temporarily froze key parts of the process amid lawsuits over what to do with ballots that lacked a witness signature and other information.

State and county officials, many working late into the night, said it would take several days to inform at least 10,000 voters who cast problem ballots. An uneven landscape emerged in the day after the new rules were announced: Some counties said they had all but cleared the backlog, but some voters elsewhere said they hadn’t yet been contacted.

In Durham, 24-year-old unaffiliated voter Stephane Prieto was surprised Tuesday afternoon when a reporter told her that her ballot had been marked as having incomplete witness information. The state database didn’t make clear exactly what was missing, but if her ballot lacks a witness signature, she’ll have to cast another one.

“It’s kind of worrisome,” she said of the prospect of obtaining and casting a new ballot this close to the election.

Prieto, a part-time home health aide who voted for Joe Biden, said her mother witnessed her ballot, and she mailed it Oct. 6.

“She was right next to me,” Prieto said of filling out her ballot. “She signed it and, you know, we filled everything out. It should have been OK.”

Durham County’s elections director didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections said that as of Monday approximately 10,000 ballots statewide had various deficiencies. But that number could be higher because counties were instructed not to enter ballots with errors into a statewide database during the freeze on handling deficient ballots. During the two-week freeze, voters weren’t contacted about ballot errors.

Board Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell said Tuesday that it would take several days for counties to enter the backlog of deficient ballots into the system to provide a complete picture of how many there are statewide. Still, Bell said she hopes that by early next week, “those voters should have their materials in hand and able to return those to us.”

Through Tuesday afternoon, more than 2 million early votes had been cast in North Carolina, including over 600,000 by mail.

State law requires absentee voters to have another adult witness the ballot and sign and print their name on the outer envelope. A federal judge ruled last week that absentee ballots lacking a witness signature require the voter to restart the process and have it witnessed again.

Redone absentee ballots can be mailed back or returned by hand to county election boards or early voting sites. Or those people can also cast a ballot in person, instead.

Other problems including an incomplete witness address, failure of the witness to print their name or a signature in the wrong place can be fixed by the voter signing a certificate and sending it back by email or regular mail.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday night that North Carolina can accept absentee ballots that are postmarked by Election Day for more than a week afterward. The ruling on the Nov. 12 deadline for the ballots to arrive at county boards stemmed from the same legal fight over the witness requirement.

Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, worked through about 1,000 deficient absentee ballots until late Monday night after the new guidance was issued, county elections board spokeswoman Kristin Mavromatis said. Some of the voters had already sent in cure affidavits, so those were counted. The county began the notification process for those who can fix their ballots with an affidavit. And for those who need to cast entirely new ballots, those went into the mail Tuesday.

“There’s no backlog. We cleared it last night. We stayed till midnight, three of us,” she said.

Buncombe County estimated Tuesday that it had about 800 ballots that either lacked a witness signature and had to be recast or could be cured via an affidavit, Buncombe County spokeswoman Lillian Govus said in an email. She said they anticipate it will take them two or three days to contact the voters.
State records show Harnett County confirmed receipt of Republican Elizabeth Herring’s ballot Monday, the day the freeze lifted. She said she put it in the mail two weeks earlier from California where she’s working with coronavirus patients as a nurse on temporary assignment. State data said the ballot was “pending cure,” meaning Herring should be able to fix it by returning an affidavit.

“As far as I knew, everything was OK with the ballot,” said Herring, who said she voted for President Donald Trump.

But she’s not sure what the exact problem was because, as of Tuesday afternoon, the local election board had not made contact. The county election director didn’t respond to a reporter’s email seeking comment.

If the county sends the cure certification by mail, Herring is concerned about getting it and sending it back in time.

“So that’s not fair to me when I took responsibility early on to make sure that my vote, my voice counted,” she said.