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Elections director sheds light on mail-in voting

As the 2020 presidential election approaches in the midst of a global pandemic, national attention has focused on voting by mail — with confusing results.

Beaufort County Board of Elections Director Kellie Hopkins wants to clarify the discussion about voting by mail and what it means for Beaufort County voters.

“Some states, for the pandemic, have said they’re going to mail a ballot request form to every voter because of the pandemic. When they get to talking about that, it confuses people because North Carolina is different,” Hopkins said. “Each state is different. When they hear this stuff from other states, it’s confusing because each state does it differently.”

When it comes to voting by mail, states are essentially divided into three categories: states that automatically send out ballots, states that automatically send out an absentee ballot request form to voters and states that require voters to ask for an absentee ballot request form.

“North Carolina is a request state. Voters must request that they want to have an absentee ballot sent to them. It’s not something that automatically happens, so if somebody wants one, they would have to request one from our office,” Hopkins said. “That’s the difference between us and these all-mail states — there’s five of them and a couple of them at added it this year. We don’t do that. They have to request it. It’s voter initiated.”

Since 2004, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington have almost exclusively conduct their elections by mail, sending ballots to all registered voters in those states. Because of the pandemic, California, Nevada, Vermont, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. have opted to do the same and will also be mailing ballots to their registered voters this year.

Where in previous elections, Ohio has automatically mailed its voters an absentee ballot request form, this year, the states of Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont will do the same.

Seven states — Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — require voters to not only request an absentee ballot, but give a reason as to why the request should be granted.

North Carolina is one of 25 states known as “no excuse” states, meaning voters have to request the absentee ballot, but aren’t required to give a reason why.

Hopkins said because of concerns about COVID-19 and voting in person, the requests for absentee ballot forms has gone up significantly in the county this year.

 

HOW TO REQUEST AN ABSENTEE BALLOT IN BEAUFORT COUNTY

In order to get an absentee ballot, a Beaufort County voter has to fill out an absentee ballot request form and return it to the Beaufort County Board of Elections. There are several ways to access the absentee ballot request form: it can be downloaded from the State Board of Elections website or the Beaufort County Board of Elections website; voters can also call the local Board of Elections’ office and request the form be mailed or emailed to them.

If a voter is unable to ask for or fill out an absentee ballot request form, there are a limited number of people who can do it for them: a near relative, a verifiable legal guardian or a member of multipartisan assistance team authorized by the board of elections, for voters who are in the hospital or reside in a nursing or rest home.

Near relatives are defined as: spouse, brother, sister, parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, mother-in-law, father-in-law, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, stepparent or stepchild. Elected officials, candidates and officeholders in a political party or for a candidate’s campaign are strictly prohibited from requesting, filling out or returning an absentee ballot request form for unrelated voters.

 

FILLING OUT AND RETURNING AN ABSENTEE BALLOT REQUEST FORM

The only absentee ballot form that will be accepted is one that starts as a blank form and is filled out in its entirety and signed by the voter, near-relative, legal guardian or MAT representative.

“What they are receiving is a blank form, and the voter must fill it out in full. They cannot be accepted if it’s pre-filled,” Hopkins said.

While the state’s Board of Elections only sends out absentee ballot request forms to voters who have asked for them, third-party entities, such as political parties, can mail them out without request, which can also be confusing. Hopkins said those absentee ballot request forms will be accepted by her office, but only if no part of that form is filled out by anyone other than the voter — even name and address.

The absentee ballot request form can be returned to the Beaufort County Board of Elections in several ways: it can be scanned, then emailed or faxed; mailed; or hand-delivered by the voter, near-relative, legal guardian or MAT representative.

A real signature is also required.

“There has to be a clear signature on it. It can’t be like a DocuSign, where you change the font. It needs to be an original signature. We call it a ‘wet-ink’ signature,” Hopkins said.

The deadline to ask for an absentee ballot request form is the Tuesday before the election (Oct. 27), and the completed request form must be in the Board of Elections’ office by 5 p.m. that same day.

Hopkins said the Beaufort County Board of Elections will begin sending out the requested absentee ballots on Sept. 4 — currently, there is a queue of absentee ballots waiting to be mailed. After Sept. 4, absentee ballots will be sent out as the requests for them are received.

 

FILLING OUT AND RETURNING AN ABSENTEE BALLOT

Instructions are included with absentee ballots, and voters are asked to fill them out accordingly. A person voting by absentee ballot must have a witness observing the process — not so close that they can see how the ballot is being marked, but close enough to attest to the voter’s identity.

“They have to sign it, and they have to have a witness sign it — a witness that that person was the one that voted the ballot,” Hopkins said. “Be prepared to sign it yourself and have a witness sign it for you.”

Completed absentee ballots can be returned to the Board of Elections in one of two ways: they can be sent by mail or hand-delivered to Board of Elections. If an absentee ballot is being hand-delivered, only that select group can hand-deliver it: the voter who filled out the ballot, a near relative, legal guardian or MAT representative.

“The ballot needs to be, at the latest, postmarked by Election Day,” Hopkins said.

 

ISSUES WITH THE MAIL

Another issue that’s arisen over the past several weeks is the U.S. Postal Service’s role in processing and delivering absentee ballot request forms and absentee ballots if a voter waits until the last minute to receive or send either.

Hopkins said the state Board of Elections received a letter from U.S. Postmaster General Louis Dejoy warning that if North Carolina’s absentee ballot request form deadline is Oct. 27, and a voter plans to mail in their absentee ballot, USPS might not be able to deliver on time.

While an absentee ballot must be post-marked on Election Day, at the latest, it also must be received by the Friday after the election to be counted.

Hopkins said all absentee ballots received by 5 p.m. Nov. 2, the Monday before the election, will be counted with ballots coming in from precincts on Election Day.

Her advice to all voters who plan to vote by absentee ballot this year: go ahead and get it done.

“We are suggesting that anybody that is going to mail (an absentee ballot) back to us, that they do it as soon as possible or a couple of weeks before Election Day,” Hopkins said. “This year, in particular, I would vote it and get it in as quick as you can.”

For more information, visit the Beaufort County Board of Elections online at beaufortncboe.org or call 252-946-2321.