Forget the national media countdown to Election Day, Nov. 3. North Carolina will be the first state to send out absentee ballots, on Sept. 4.
“The kickoff to our election is in just a few days, not 84 days from now,” said Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections.
She spoke last Tuesday during a Zoom workshop with nearly 60 participants organized by the USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative, whose state media partner was the Chatham News + Record.
With support from Google, the University of Southern California team will bring perspective, tips and resources to all 50 states for election officials, campaign workers, journalists and academics. North Carolina was its 39th workshop.
“North Carolina is especially important because, as one of a handful of competitive states, campaign and election officials will be priority targets for bad actors trying to spread disinformation and trying to discredit the 2020 election,” said Adam Clayton Powell III, executive director of the USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative.
Powell noted that the federal government is now offering rewards of up to $10 million for information about hackers trying to meddle in U.S. elections.
Brinson Bell noted that most counties in the state prefer early voting and that no excuse is needed to apply for an absentee ballot, which has been redesigned and which now requires just one witness.
The state rejected the idea of all-mail voting, she said, because of supply chain, logistical and voter behavior issues and instead moved forward with a three-pronged approach: absentee ballots by mail, one-stop early voting sites and in-person voting on Election Day, which she hoped will go smoothly with fewer people because many voted by other means.
“Back in the fall we launched a campaign in North Carolina to increase voter confidence because we know there are a lot of questions around cybersecurity and what goes on in elections,” said Brinson Bell, the state’s chief election officer working with boards of election in all 100 counties.
“We moved to a completely paper ballot system in North Carolina back in the latter part of last year,” she said. “We have a state law in place that says our voting systems are not connected to the internet.”
March 3 marked not only the first time North Carolina participated in a Super Tuesday primary election, but it also marked the first reported coronavirus case in the state in Wake County.
“Now, almost a year later after we launched that campaign, not only are we trying to address cybersecurity, but we’re trying to address public safety and physical security,” she said.
Brinson Bell emphasized the importance of the voter in ensuring election security.
“They are our poll workers,” she said. “The neighbors, the people they go to church with, or go to the gym with, those are the people serving as our precinct officials and carrying out the election on the front lines. And now they are doing so with PPE.”
The “ripple effect” from the upcoming election makes the stakes higher because 2020 coincides with the U.S. Census, said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
“The legislature that is elected this November will be in charge of redistricting (for the 2022 elections),” he said. “North Carolina has been ground zero in many respects for almost 40 years in issues having to do with ballot access, gerrymandering, redistricting, and voter suppression or voting rules and regulations.”
Like much of America, he said, the largest growth in voter identification in North Carolina has been unaffiliated, which represents about a third of the voters in the state with the other two-thirds being split with slightly more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Since 1972 in state elections, he said, Republicans have won 10 of the 12 presidential elections with Democratic victories only for Jimmy Carter (1976) and Barack Obama (2008). But in those same elections Democrats won eight of the 12 races for governor.
Asked about the importance of the workshop, Guillory said, “USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative produced a valuable workshop for North Carolina, a competitive swing state with statewide elections decided by narrow margins.”
“In this stressful election year,” he said, “it’s crucial that citizens feel they have robust opportunities to vote, have their vote counted reliably and have confidence in the outcome.”
One reporter, who covers election integrity, open government and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press in Asheville, struck a positive note.
“I want to praise election directors in the counties and the state of North Carolina,” said reporter Jordan Wilkie, a Report for America corps member. “I think North Carolina has done a better job than a lot of states in responding to COVID especially as well as making significant changes since 2012 and 2016 in their election administration.”
Wilkie also issued a warning.
“Voters need to know that the post office is delivering things pretty slow right now,” he said. “If they are mailing in their ballot, as a record number of voters are doing, they should do that by October 25.”
Politics reporter Steve Harrison, of public radio station WFAE in Charlotte, added perspective from the state’s largest city.
“The elections director here says he expects a huge increase in mail voting,” said Harrison, who writes a weekly newsletter, “Inside Politics.” “Back in 2016 I think there were 29,000 mail ballots in the presidential race. This year they’re expecting up to a hundred thousand.”
Complicating the challenge, he said, is a new rule that citizens will be allowed a “do-over,” a second chance to have their votes counted, if technicalities cause their ballots to be discarded.
As the pandemic has upended the “person-to-person effect” of traditional campaigning, longtime campaign manager Russell Peck sees another way Election 2020 will be different.
“You can’t buy the value of the voter talking to another voter,” said Peck, who was campaign manager for former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2012 and 2016.
“It is the most valuable piece of being able to get out the vote.”
USC’s Powell summarized his national view this way: “2020 will be the most challenging election in our lifetimes.”
Buck Ryan, director of the Citizen Kentucky Project on civic engagement, is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky. He is conducting a case study of the Chatham News + Record, which he views as a model of success for community newspapers here and abroad.
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