The most common problem on mail-in ballots? The witness section

Roughly 3 percent of ballots sent in so far have a problem, according to elections officials. But for black voters, it's 7.6 percent.

Posted Updated

Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — Nearly 47,000 voters have already mailed in their ballots in North Carolina, and local officials are finding problems with a little more than 3 percent of them.

The biggest problem, by far: The witness section on the outside of the envelope.

The state requires a single witness to sign off on absentee-by-mail ballots, and whether spaces are left blank or signatures are illegible, nearly all of the issues boil down to incomplete witness information on the envelope.

“These aren’t people who won’t be able to vote," State Board of Elections spokesman Patrick Gannon said Tuesday. "There are processes in place for all types of deficiencies, whether it be the issuance of a new ballot or the ability for the voter to fill out an affidavit. These are not voters who will not be able to vote, by any stretch of the imagination."

Gannon recommends reading carefully the instructions that come with your ballot. You can also use a new state website to track your ballot through the process, much like you would a package.

State procedures require elections officials to reach out to you quickly if there's a problem with your ballot and to give you a chance to fix it. For witnessing problems, that typically means you'll be issued a new ballot, and the old one will be spoiled so it won't be counted.

Other problems can be fixed by affidavit. A federal judge, in a court order last month, forbid state and local officials from rejecting absentee ballots simply because of bad witness contact information and other minor issues.
The North Carolina Democratic Party filed a separate lawsuit last week, arguing that people who mess up the witness section should be able to fix that without having to cast a second ballot.
The lawsuits may mean changes in the state's procedures, but for now, they're laid out in a memorandum State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell sent county boards of election last month.

The state expects to set records this year for voting by mail. Already, more than 813,000 ballots have been requested.

The state breaks down received ballots by a number of demographics, and they show that officials are more likely to find problems with ballots sent in by Black voters than white ones.

Right now, roughly 7.6 percent of the nearly 8,000 ballots Black voters have turned in have some sort of issue. For white voters, it's 2.2 percent. For Hispanic voters, it's 3.4 percent.

Not everyone is identified by race in state voting records, so the figures are not exact. Also, the ballots haven't been opened: The issues identified are with the envelopes.

Voting rights advocates said they're monitoring the differences closely.

"On a daily basis," said Hilary Harris Klein, voting rights counsel for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, "with an eye to protecting the rights of voters who have historically been disenfranchised.”

"As the numbers come in, I think it certainly is something to be aware of and keep an eye on," said Aylett Colson, a voting rights advocate and an attorney.

In elections parlance, problem ballots may eventually be "rejected," though voters will be given a chance to "cure" their ballot or to cast another one. Rejections won't start coming down until later this month, though, when local boards of elections meet to make those calls.

Right now, it's elections staff examining the envelopes that ballots arrive in and making preliminary recommendations, which are cataloged by the state.

Said Gannon: "There are a lot of people who are voting by mail for the first time. This is a newly designed envelope. ... Follow the instructions on the envelope very closely.”


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