The coronavirus pandemic has touched just about every part of our daily lives, but state officials overseeing this year’s general election have had a particular challenge. This week, we speak with …
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The coronavirus pandemic has touched just about every part of our daily lives, but state officials overseeing this year’s general election have had a particular challenge. This week, we speak with Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the N.C. State Board of Elections, about how the agency is adjusting and preparing.
Bell has served as executive director of the state board since June 1, 2019. She has worked in elections administration since 2006 in county, state, and national roles. As North Carolina’s chief elections official, she leads about 85 full-time employees at the state agency, which is charged with administering elections and campaign finance compliance, overseeing the 100 county boards of elections, and ensuring voting for more than 7 million voters.
She has spent most of her career in elections administration. From March 2011 to March 2015, she served as director for the Transylvania County (N.C.) Board of Elections. Prior to that, she worked for five years as a district elections technician for the State Board of Elections, where she supprted 12 county boards in western N.C. in almost all facets of elections.
Before her appointment as executive director, Bell was deputy director of the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center. In that role, she assisted elections administrators on a national level, providing expert testimony and educational tools for conducting elections using that method.
The State Board of Elections issued a memo to county boards of elections on June 1 outlining in-person guidelines for two primary elections, and you’ve indicated updated guidance will be provided for North Carolina’s Nov. 3 general election. What are the major points of the guidelines voters need to be aware of?
The State Board and county boards of elections are working diligently to make voting accessible, safe and secure for voters during early voting and Election Day in November. The safety and health of voters and election workers is a top priority for us.
At each polling site, social distancing will be enforced, and masks will be provided for voters who don’t bring their own and wish to wear one. Voting spaces will be cleaned regularly and stocked with one-use pens to limit the spread of any germs.
More steps we’re taking include:
• Single-use cotton swabs for voters using touchscreen devices.
• Hand sanitizer for voters and poll workers.
• Face shields and gloves for poll workers.
• Protective barriers between poll workers and voters at check-in tables.
• Special sanitation kits at each precinct to ensure poll worker protection and clean tables, voting booths and voting machines throughout the voting process.
• Thorough cleaning of voting sites before and after the election.
How will the state and local elections boards cover the increased costs of additional safeguards for voters?
PPE costs are being covered by CARES Act funding received by the state. We are also looking at in-kind contributions and other partnerships to help the extend the funds to meet demand for these materials.
Given the pandemic, there’s a lot of discussion about voting by mail. What’s the state board doing in this regard, and how do expect this issue to play out? (And what’s your forecast on the growth in this year’s general election in the use of absentee ballots?)
We expect an increase in voting by mail for the November election. Generally, absentee by mail ballots make up 4 to 5 percent of ballots cast in an election. For November, we’re estimating anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of ballots being by mail. That percentage could be lower if pandemic conditions improve between now and the election.
We’ve worked with legislators and county boards of elections to make voting by mail easier and more efficient for November. House Bill 1169 included several important changes, such as the ability to request an absentee ballot through an online portal and requiring only one witness rather than two for a ballot.
Federal CARES Act funding and additional grant funding will be used to help administer absentee by mail voting. This includes the increase in postage costs to fulfill ballot requests. Also, the State Board is purchasing high-speed scanners to make counting absentee ballots easier and quicker for the counties.
Any discussion of this, of course, brings to mind debates about voter fraud. How widespread is voter fraud in N.C.? What kinds of complaints does your office receive, and what do you typically find when making investigations?
Participation by ineligible voters in North Carolina elections is neither rampant nor non-existent. Most incidents, such as double voting or voting by ineligible residents, such as felons or non-citizens, are isolated and not coordinated. Incidents of voter misconduct are not isolated to any political party or geographical region of the state. More information about State Board investigations is here: https://dl.ncsbe.gov/index.html?prefix=Investigations/
Recently, concerns have been expressed about by-mail voting. We believe absentee voting is secure. Safeguards are ingrained in the absentee voting process. Absentee ballots are sent only to registered voters who request them using an official state absentee ballot request form. The request must be signed and includes identifying information about the voter, including date of birth and driver’s license number or last four digits of the voter’s Social Security number. Voters must vote their ballot in the presence of a witness, and that witness must sign the absentee return envelope certifying that the voter marked their ballot and is the registered voter submitting the marked ballot. Only the voter or their near relative or legal guardian may return the ballot. Upon return, the county board of elections reviews the absentee envelope to ensure compliance with the legal requirements.
Data on who has requested absentee ballots is now confidential until Election Day. Criminal penalties have been increased for absentee voting fraud-related offenses. Many eyes are watching our absentee voting process, including candidates, political parties, county boards of elections, political and data scientists and everyday folks on the ground. If there are anomalies or questionable activities, they will be reported to election officials. Finally, we have an Investigations Division at the State Board of Elections that investigates credible allegations of elections fraud and refers cases to prosecutors when warranted by the evidence.
The State Board also conducts several post-election audits which will catch inconsistencies that can then be investigated by the board or our Investigations Division.
Voter ID in North Carolina, of course, is still not required. How has the changing landscape of this issue affected your office?
In any situation, the State Board reacts to law changes and adjusts accordingly to ensure we comply with the law. When the law was enjoined, we worked quickly to inform voters that a photo ID would not be required for the 2020 elections. We changed language on forms and our website where necessary.
N.C.’s political divide seems to be growing. How does that affect your office’s work before, during and after election cycles?
The State Board must work in the best interest of all of North Carolina voters and according to state and federal laws and court orders. Each decision made is to improve the elections process for voters. Today’s political atmosphere, combined with social media, breed misinformation about elections, which can confuse voters and decrease voter confidence in the election system. As a result, elections officials must respond wherever possible with accurate information to ensure voters understand the process. We strongly encourage voters to get reliable information about elections from their state and county boards of elections and other trusted sources.
The recruitment of poll workers — many of whom are retirees, and thus older, and more at-risk to exposure to COVID-19 — is something you’re working to address. How’s that coming along?
Poll workers will be vital for the November election. We’re expecting to need 25,000 to 30,000 election workers to make this election a success.
To assist in this effort, we created the Democracy Heroes campaign to raise awareness and increase interest in becoming an election worker for early voting and on Election Day. We’re asking interested individuals to complete an interest survey, which can be found on our website at NCSBE.gov and at this link: bit.ly/2Yh8Aj6
The State Board is also working with other government, civic and educational institutions to distribute a flyer to affiliated individuals about serving as an election worker this November.
Recruitment will be an ongoing process, but it is a priority of our organization heading into November.
And finally, can you outline what’s ahead for the November election? Remind voters what they need to know (key dates, etc.) and how they can vote …
For November, we encourage each and every voter to cast a ballot the way they’re most comfortable. Three options will be available to each voter – in-person early voting, in-person on Election Day and by mail.
The voter registration deadline is October 9, 2020. Eligible voters who miss this deadline may register and vote at the same time during early voting, which is October 15-October 31, 2020. A voter may vote at any one-stop early voting site in their county. The sites will be announced in late August or early September.
The deadline to request a ballot by mail is October 27, 2020. The deadline to return a ballot is 5 p.m. on Election Day. Absentee ballots received after 5 p.m. on Election Day will be timely only if they are received by mail no later than 5 p.m. on the third day following the election, and postmarked on or before Election Day.
The envelope may be mailed or delivered in person to the county board of elections office or an open early voting site during the early voting period.
On November 3, polls will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Voters must vote at their precinct polling location on Election Day.