North Carolina Voters, Organizers Rush To Fix Absentee Ballot Issues Before Election Day
More than 4 million North Carolina voters have already cast their ballot, as early voting draws to a close on Saturday, Oct. 31. But after a flurry of lawsuits around absentee ballots in the state, a small group of voters is struggling to fix problems with their ballots before Election Day.
Chelsea Miles voted absentee by mail for the first time this year. She lives in Charlotte’s University City area with her partner, and they both decided to vote absentee because they planned to be out of town right before Election Day.
They requested their ballots in early October, received them a few weeks later, and filled them out at their kitchen table earlier this week. Instead of mailing the ballots back, they went to the early voting site at Garinger High School to drop them off. There, a poll worker had them sign a sheet of paper and drop their ballots into a bag.
"Everyone was super nice and friendly, but we were like 'OK,'" Miles said. "It was something we’d never done before, so I didn’t know if there was anything ... I mean, it felt fine. I was like, 'OK, cool, we voted. No big deal!’"
But Miles got a call two days later saying her absentee ballot had been spoiled. That meant it had a serious issue and wouldn’t count unless she fixed it. The volunteer on the phone was with the North Carolina Democratic Party’s Voter Assistance Hotline. Miles looked up her ballot on the state’s official BallotTrax system and saw it was marked as spoiled. But her partner’s ballot had been accepted.
Miles’ ballot could have been spoiled for reasons that are the voter’s fault, like illegible handwriting or a missing witness signature, or for other reasons, like a tear in the ballot. Miles was going out of town the next morning, so she visited a nearby early voting site an hour before it closed. Voters who have their ballot spoiled can decide to vote in person instead because the system hasn’t received a valid vote from them yet. There, Miles said two poll workers stopped her.
"They literally just laughed at me, both of them together, and like looked at each other and they’re like, “You can’t vote twice,” Miles said.
She explained her situation but said they only let her vote after she called the hotline volunteer back and then convinced the poll workers to contact the Mecklenburg Board of Elections.
Miles said she was glad she was able to vote, but she found the whole process frustrating.
"And I was like, this is the coolest thing ever, I’ve never done this before and I really liked doing it!" Miles said. "But then, after all of the hiccups that I had to go through in order to do it, and then having an error and having to fix that error, and how difficult it was to try to convince them that I needed to fix the error, I would probably never do it again."
Miles wasn't alone in trying to fix her spoiled absentee ballot. These ballots have been at the center of legal wrangling in North Carolina for the past two months. At issue was how the state elections board could allow voters to “cure” their absentee by-mail ballot, meaning fix minor issues like a missing witness address. More serious issues, like a missing witness signature, would lead to a “spoiled” ballot, and the voter would have to fill out a new one.
State elections director Karen Brinson Bell estimated between 7,000 and 10,000 absentee ballots statewide had been set aside during the lawsuits. In Mecklenburg County, about 250 voters still had spoiled ballots as of this week, but the local board of elections said more voters may have fallen into this category and gone to vote early in person, like Miles did.
Kate Dennstaedt is a volunteer with the state Democratic Party’s Voter “Protection Team.” She's often on the other side of those phone calls like the one Miles received. Dennstaedt said she also drives to people’s homes and knocks on their door to tell them - while socially distanced - that they need to fix their spoiled ballot.
"I can’t take your ballot. I can’t do your ballot, I can’t help you vote. I can witness your ballot - if you stand on your porch and I see you voting, I can be your witness," Dennstaedt said. "But I can’t tell you who to vote for, I can’t help you fill out your ballot."
The North Carolina Democratic Party appeared to be one of the only organizations contacting local voters by phone and in person to fix their ballots in this election. The Mecklenburg County Board of Elections contacts voters in writing if they have a ballot issue, but doesn’t have employees contacting voters in person. The local Republican Party said it doesn’t have organizers canvassing either. Dennstaedt said many of the people who have spoiled ballots are younger people who’ve never voted before or older people who are house-bound.
She can’t always provide them with an easy fix. One voter, she said, was a 100-year-old woman who was bedridden. Dennstaedt called the house to tell her daughter, a woman in her 70s, that her mother had a spoiled ballot.
"And they thought they had done everything correctly, but she could not physically get out of her house to vote. And it was so important to her. I said it was breaking my heart that I had to tell her daughter that her mother’s ballot was not counted," Deenstaedt said. "So they were going to contact the board of elections and find out what they had to do. There was nothing we could do to help them."
Her go-to advice: go vote early, in person, if you can. Dennstaedt said despite the confusion around absentee by-mail ballots because of the lawsuits in North Carolina and other states, she wanted to make sure no voters’ ballot goes uncounted because of a technicality like a missing witness signature.
"I’m not just trying to convince someone to vote. Someone’s already voted," Dennstaedt said. "They took the time and energy to request a mail-in ballot. They took the time and energy to return that ballot, and they deserve to have their vote counted."
She and other organizers will be working through Election Day, trying to get voters to fix their ballots, or to have them vote before early voting ends on Saturday, Oct. 31.
To find a North Carolina early voting site near you, visit the North Carolina Board of Elections' One-Stop Early Voting search tool.
Tell us about your voting experience. Did it go smoothly? Were there any problems? How were the lines? Did you feel safe? If so, why or why not?