An election unlike any other officially kicks off as North Carolina mails first ballots to voters
Posted September 4, 2020 6:10 a.m. EDT
CNN — Ballots are on the way.
The 2020 presidential election truly kicks off Friday as North Carolina begins mailing the first ballots to more than 618,000 voters who requested them, marking the start of an eight-week sprint to November that will test the nation's ability to hold elections during a global pandemic.
The election has already been marred by a steady stream of misinformation from President Donald Trump, who this week encouraged supporters in North Carolina to vote twice as a way of testing anti-fraud safeguards. His comments immediately threw officials and experts into overdrive, forcing them to issue warnings that casting multiple ballots is a criminal offense.
With ballots now getting sent out, local officials have initiated the first step of the vote-by-mail process. Ballots should start arriving in the next two weeks, and voters can then fill them out and send them back, either by dropping them in the mail or bringing them to an election office.
Millions of registered voters across the country have already requested mail ballots. This astronomical increase from 2016 reflects the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which triggered historic interest in mail-in voting options that keep people away from polling places.
North Carolina is important battleground state, with competitive races for president, governor and Senate. Trump carried North Carolina by only 3.7% four years ago, and wants to keep it in his column. Democratic nominee Joe Biden hopes to flip the state for the first time since 2008.
Tar Heel politics
Both campaigns are eyeing North Carolina's 15 electoral votes. They've spent a combined $32 million on television ads in the state, split evenly, according to data from CMAG/Kantar Media.
Trump visited the coastal city of Wilmington on Wednesday for an event honoring World War II veterans. He used the speech to reiterate his support for Confederate statues and monuments, saying, "we're not ashamed in America, we're not ashamed of anything." (During the Civil War, North Carolina joined the Confederacy, and Wilmington was the last Confederate port to fall.)
The Trump campaign says it has knocked on more than 425,000 doors and called more than 4.7 million voters in North Carolina. The campaign also says it's benefiting from recent voter registration trends, which indicate that the historical Democratic edge in the state is shrinking.
Overall, the level of new voter signups this year has dropped compared to 2016, likely because of the pandemic, according to the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research.
The Biden campaign says it has called more than 3 million North Carolina voters, and recruited 3,400 volunteers and 200 current or former elected officials to mobilize their supporters. Biden is outspending Trump on television, with ads focusing on Trump's response to the coronavirus.
Polls show a tight race
Polling has been sparse in the Tar Heel State. A Fox News poll released on Wednesday gave Biden a 4-point advantage among likely voters, leading Trump 50% to 46%, within the poll's margin of error. Another poll released Thursday by Monmouth University found no clear leader.
Biden's polling position has been buoyed by a respectable second place showing among white voters, coupled with near-universal support from Black voters, who comprise a larger share of the electorate in North Carolina than in other battleground states, like the Rust Belt states.
"Democrats have come so close, so many times," said Mac McCorkle, a professor at Duke University who has worked in North Carolina politics for 26 years. "Seniors have not deserted Trump like they have in some other states, but he's not winning them with the same margin he did in 2016. That's the difference right now. Trump is cooked here if he loses the seniors."
The polls showed mixed results in the Senate race -- one gave Democrat Cal Cunningham a lead over Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, while the other showed a statistical tie. The Monmouth poll found that voters strongly approve of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's response to the pandemic, vaulting him into an 11-point lead over his GOP challenger, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.
Surge of postal voting
North Carolina allows "no excuse" absentee voting, which means any registered voter who wants an absentee ballot can get one. So far, more than 618,000 voters requested absentee ballots, far surpassing the approximately 190,000 voters who voted-by-mail in the 2016 election.
The state typically requires two witnesses to sign an absentee ballot, but the state legislature reduced the number to one, to make it easier for people to vote-by-mail during the pandemic.
Liberal-leaning groups like the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit to eliminate the witness rules altogether, arguing that they force voters to potentially risk exposure to Covid-19.
Witness requirements are one of many protections in place to prevent voter fraud. Ballots are only sent to voters who ask for them and provide personally identifiable information, including their driver's license number and part of their Social Security number. Voter signatures are matched to old signatures on record. Post-election audits are designed to snuff out fraud.
"Many people are watching North Carolina's absentee voting process, including candidates, political parties, county boards of elections, and political and data scientists," said Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the bipartisan North Carolina State Board of Elections. "If there are anomalies or questionable activities, they will be reported to election officials."
Shadow of election fraud
All year, Trump has spread false and conspiratorial claims about voter fraud, and even urged supporters in North Carolina to vote twice to test out the system -- which is likely illegal.
The chair of the state board of elections, Karen Brinson Bell, released a lengthy statement responding to Trump. She stated unequivocally that, "it is illegal to vote twice in an election."
Widespread fraud does not occur in US elections, but the scrutiny is warranted. North Carolina was home to one of the most notorious election fraud scandals in recent memory: During the 2018 midterms, a group of Republican operatives improperly collected ballots from voters at their homes, switched their votes and forged their signatures, tainting a high-profile House race.
The alleged ringleader, GOP operative Leslie McCrae Dowless, was charged with 14 state felonies and pleaded not guilty. The cases against Dowless and 10 other defendants are currently in limbo because the state indefinitely suspended all jury trials due to the pandemic.
The scheme involved so-called "ballot harvesting," where political activists or groups collect large numbers of absentee ballots from voters and submit them, with their permission. The controversial practice is legal in some states but banned in others, and in the wake of the 2018 scandal, North Carolina lawmakers tightened absentee rules and increased penalties for fraud.