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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
Copyright 2024 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.