BAKERSVILLE — Requests for absentee ballots in Mitchell County have increased significantly this year compared to previous election cycles.
Director of the Mitchell County Board of Elections Roycene Jones said the county has received 1,130 absentee ballots requests so far. For comparison, the county received less than 400 requests in 2016.
Jones said she credits the majority of the uptick in absentee ballot requests to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“I think people are worried about going out in-person with all this going on and absentee provides people with a safe way to vote,” she said.
In previous elections, North Carolina has required absentee ballots to have two witness signatures. However, this election, because of the pandemic, the North Carolina Board of Elections changed the required number of witnesses to just one.
Jones acknowledged the increase in absentee ballot requests is also likely due to the weight people have put on the upcoming presidential election.
Jones cited the difference between absentee voting and the widely discussed mail-in voting, where ballots are automatically sent out to registered voters but is only available in nine states and the District of Columbia.
“Voting by absentee is not the same as mail-in voting,” Jones said. “Most people do mail their absentee ballots back to us, but in North Carolina, we do not mail out ballots to voters unless they request it as an absentee.”
She added there are local groups who send out absentee ballot request forms, but they are not ballots and they are not sent out by the board of elections.
In early September, President Donald Trump made remarks to North Carolina voters in Wilmington where he seemed to encourage them to test the state’s voting system by voting once by absentee ballot and then going to the polls in-person to vote again.
“And you send them [absentee ballots] in, but you go to vote,” the president said. “And if they haven’t counted it, you can vote. So that’s the way I feel.”
According to North Carolina law, it’s a felony “for any person with intent to commit a fraud to register or vote at more than one precinct or more than one time, or to induce another to do so, in the same primary or election, or to vote illegally at any primary or election.”
Jones said she would not state her political views on the matter, but said the absentee process is very thorough and their system would make it difficult for someone to “test the system.”
“When a voter votes, either by mail or early voting, it automatically hits our system and that voter is flagged as having voted,” she said. “So, if a voter mailed their ballot in, yet maybe forgot they did and they come in to vote and the poll worker pulls them up and it says they’ve already voted, you can explain to them that they’ve already voted. Sometimes they will remember, but sometimes they won’t.”
She added this scenario happens most commonly with elderly voters who might not have remembered voting absentee, but said poll workers cannot turn a voter away if they are adamant they haven’t voted already.
“We cannot turn a voter away, if they really don’t think they have voted and we know they have, they can vote a provisional ballot, but we would count the absentee ballot over the provisional ballot in that scenario,” she said.
Jones also noted if an absentee voter mails in their ballot, they are able to track it online with a tool called BallotTrax to see where it is in the process.
After the ballot has arrived at the county office, the Board of Elections holds several meetings up until Election Day to inspect and approve the ballots.
Jones said during an absentee ballot board meeting, they put all of the ballots they have received in front of the board members who will look at them and determine whether that ballot will count or not.
“What they are looking for is whether the back of the ballot has been signed by the voter and if the voter has had someone witness the ballot,” she said. “If that ballot is rejected for some reason, then we have to notify that voter that the board has rejected their ballot and explain why and give them the opportunity to fix what was wrong. But, it’s pretty rare to see a rejected ballot.”
At the end of each board meeting, the ballots are inserted into the voting machine, but the results are not tabulated and reported until Election Day.
The Mitchell County Board of Elections has already held two of their required absentee meetings where the board counts the ballots. The next meeting will be held Oct. 13 at 5 p.m. upstairs in the old courthouse at 11 North Mitchell Ave. in Bakersville.
Absentee ballots can be requested in North Carolina until 5 p.m. on Oct. 27. The request can be made by calling the Mitchell County Board of Elections or by submitting the online form.
To return the ballot, voters can mail it back to the board of elections or return it by hand to the board of elections office or to an early voting site.
If returning the ballot by hand, though, Jones reminded voters that it must be returned by the voter or a near relative, like a parent, child or sibling.
The ballot must be returned no later than 5 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3. If they are received after that time, they will only be counted if they are postmarked on or before Election Day and received by mail no later than 5 p.m. on Nov. 6.
Early voting sites for Mitchell County are the board of elections office located at 11 North Mitchell Ave., Room 108 and the Spruce Pine Fire Department located at 100 Fire Fighter Way. The early voting period runs from Thursday, October 15 to Saturday, October 31.
The News-Journal will provide further information regarding voting and the election in upcoming editions of the paper.