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When is your mail-in ballot actually counted? That depends, officials say

Posted September 1, 2020 4:58 p.m. EDT
Updated September 4, 2020 4:24 a.m. EDT

— Mail balloting is set to begin Friday in the presidential election as North Carolina starts sending out more than 600,000 ballots to voters.

North Carolina is the first state in the country to send out ballots for the 2020 general election. Nearly 6% of the state's population -- 618,000 people -- have already requested absentee ballots. Due to the pandemic, the number of absentee ballot requests is more than 16 times what it was at this time in 2016.

In Wake County, about 100,000 voters have already requested absentee ballots. Judging by the rapidly ballooning number of absentee ballot requests across North Carolina, voting by mail is on track to break records in 2020.

But unlike when voters show up to the polls, mail-in ballots follow a multi-step path required by state law before they're tallied and added to the election results.

So, when is your mail-in ballot actually counted? That depends on timing – and what you mean by "counted." The team at @NCCapitol spoke with local and state election officials to walk through the process.

Requesting a mail-in ballot

To cast a ballot by mail, voters must first request one. North Carolina is a "no excuse" state, meaning all registered voters can request an absentee ballot by mail without providing a reason why they don't want to vote in person.

Not registered, or not sure if you are? Learn how to register or check your registration online. The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 9, but you can also register and cast a ballot all at once during early voting from Oct. 15 through Oct. 31.

Registered voters can submit their requests for mail-in ballots through the State Board of Elections' newly launched online Absentee Ballot Request Portal.

Alternatively, you can mail, email, fax or hand-deliver a completed request form to your local county board of elections.

Either way, your county board must receive your request by 5 p.m. Oct. 27.

After you make your request, you can check the Absentee Ballot Request Portal to see when it's been received by your local county board.

The first batch of mail-in ballots goes out to voters on Sept. 4 and will continue through the request deadline.

Filling out, submitting the ballot

Mail-in ballots in the 2020 general election require a single witness to observe you completing the ballot – but that witness doesn't need to see who you're voting for.

Mark your ballot like you would in the voting booth and seal it in the envelope.

The outside of that envelope contains several key pieces of required information that determine whether the county board will accept your ballot:

  • Voter signature
  • Witness printed name
  • Witness address
  • Witness signature

So make sure these elements are complete.

To return the ballot, you can mail it to your county board of elections (postmarked on or before Nov. 3 and received by 5 p.m. Nov. 6) or drop it off there in person (by 5 p.m. on Nov. 3). You can also drop your ballot off in person at any open early voting location from Oct. 15 to Oct. 31.

An important caveat: Absentee ballots can be dropped off only by the voters themselves or their close relatives.

Initial review by elections staff

When your ballot arrives at your local county elections board, it's stored in a secure location.

At this stage, members of the county election staff – not the full county elections board – examine the envelopes to see if there are issues that need correcting.

Guidance from the State Board of Elections notes that some problems, like when voters don't sign or sign in the wrong place, can be "cured" by sending an affidavit that voters can fill out and return by mail, fax, email or in person.

Other issues, like incomplete witness information or the arrival of an unsealed envelope, require board staff to "spoil" the ballot and send the voter another one, along with an explanation.

County board accepts or rejects ballot

For mail-in ballots, it's what's on the outside that counts.

Those crucial, required fields on the outside of the ballot envelope – the voter signature and witness information – largely determine whether elections staff spoils a ballot. That filters out most of the problems before they reach the full county board.

By state law, local boards of elections can't start reviewing mail-in ballots until Sept. 29, five weeks before Election Day. From that point on, local boards meet publicly to, among other things, rule on mail-in ballots, typically in batches.

If a ballot is rejected by a majority of the board, county election workers have to notify the voter in writing – closer to the election, via phone and email, if possible – and provide them with a way to fix their ballot or let them know they can cast one in person.

Voters can track the status of their ballot once it's received by the county board of elections using the state's voter lookup tool.

Opening the ballot

Once county boards of elections approve the ballots during their meetings, they can then direct staff to open the envelopes, prep the ballots and run them through a tabulator.

That process must take place under the supervision of the board during a public meeting.

Even then, your vote isn't technically "counted."

The tabulators don't generate results yet. State law prohibits that from happening before the polls close on Election Day across the state. Instead, the data is stored in the machine, and both the tabulator and the paper ballots they processed are locked up and secured.

This process repeats each time a new batch of ballots is approved.

Releasing the results

So, when is your ballot actually counted – meaning physically tallied for your preferred candidate?

That depends on when your county board got it.

If your mail-in ballot arrived in your local elections office by 5 p.m. Nov. 2, the day before Election Day, it goes through the board approval process and through the tabulator to count in the unofficial election results released on Nov. 3, Election Day.

But even if they were processed through tabulators weeks before, none of the results are aggregated and tallied until all polls close on Election Day.

"The machine is storing the information, but by law, we don't know the results," Wake County Elections Director Gary Sims said.

In practice, this often means a large trove of vote totals hits the state's official election results website shortly after 7:30 p.m. on election night.

Election officials point out, however, that how fast these results come in on Election Day depends on volume. High turnout and a lot of last-minute mail-in ballots could mean a longer wait for results.

Mail-in ballots that arrive after 5 p.m. Nov. 2 and by 5 p.m. Nov. 6 (as long as they're postmarked on or before Election Day), won't be included in the immediate unofficial results.

But these ballots, once they're accepted by the county board, will still be counted.

The late arrivals are part of the supplemental count, which includes provisional ballots and some overseas military ballots, which have a little longer to arrive in the mail.

"One of the big false statements is that absentees only count if there's a close race, or provisionals only count if there's a close race," Sims said. "That's truly misinformation."

Local boards may wait until the county canvass, scheduled for Nov. 13, to add those supplemental counts to the unofficial results. Some boards, Sims notes, approve and process these additional ballots during public meetings in the days between the election and the canvass.

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