LUMBERTON — The first batch of mail-in absentee ballots are being put into the mail by staff members at the Robeson County.
“Yes, they’ll start being mailed out Friday,” said Tina Bledsoe, Robeson County Board of Elections director.
Sept. 4 is the start date for ballots to be mailed to North Carolina voters who requested them, either because they weren’t going to be in the state on Election Day, Nov. 3; because they are unable to leave their residence for medical reasons; or because they fear going to a voting site because of COVID-19. The State Board of Elections is warning voters they may not receive their ballots for a week to 10 days.
Bledsoe said county voters should start seeing them Tuesday or a little later even though Monday is a federal holiday, Labor Day, and the U.S. Postal Service won’t be delivering mail that day.
County Board of Elections office staffers will stuffing envelopes and putting more than 1,000 ballots in the mail Friday, she said. It was hard to give an exact figure because requests still were coming in Thursday.
The ballots being mailed Friday include those going to local voters and to voters with Robeson County home addresses who live overseas, particularly military members, who requested one, she said.
“And they’re from all over the world,” Bledsoe said.
Ballots to people overseas will be sent out via email.
But Friday is just the start of the mailing process because ballot requests still are coming in.
“So there will be more,” Bledsoe said.
After Friday ballots will be mailed out as requests are received, she said.
Ballots mailed back to the county Elections Board will be verified and counted during each of five Board absentee meetings. The meetings are scheduled for Sept. 29 and Oct. 6, 8, 13, 20, 22 and 27. Each meeting is to start at 6 p.m.
“That’s what the Board wants to do,” Bledsoe said.
During the meeting the ballots will be verified as acceptable and counted, she said. Elections Board office staffers will check ballot envelopes and ballots to make sure voter information is correct, that the ballots are signed and witnessed, the ballots are marked properly and the voter’s signature looks the same as the voter’s signature in the Elections Board’s records.
If a staffer sees something irregular or that information is missing, the problem will be presented to the full Board of Elections, and the Board members will decide what action needs to be taken.
“We will err on the side of the voter, giving them every opportunity because we want to give everyone a chance to vote,” Bledsoe said.
But the actual votes won’t be counted before Election Day.
After being accepted, ballots will be inserted into a tabulation machine and the number of ballots inserted will be recorded, Bledsoe said. After the ballots are inserted the machine will be locked in a room at the Elections Board, a room to which few people will have access. The next morning the tabulation number on the machine will be checked again to make sure it has not changed.
“That way you know nobody has inserted anything overnight, not that anyone would,” Bledsoe said.
The chief judge of the one-stop polling site will sign off each day on the check of the number of ballots inserted into the machine.
“It will be a rolling tally,” Bledsoe said.
Ballots need to be mailed in by 5 p.m. the Monday before the Nov. 3 election so they can be verified, counted and the votes included in the Election Day results. But if the ballot envelope is postmarked by 5 p.m. Nov. 3 it will be accepted and counted as a supplemental absentee ballot. If a ballot is not received by those deadlines it will be considered invalid.
If a problem with a ballot is discovered the Board can send the voter a cure affidavit, Bledsoe said. That affidavit must be signed by the voter and returned to the Elections Board office by 5 p.m. Nov. 12, otherwise the votes will not be counted.
“The election is not over until the results are canvassed, and that will be Nov. 13,” Bledsoe said.
Something new this election cycle is voters getting assistance from a multipartisan assistance team, or a team member.
According to information from the State Board of Elections, a MAT is a group appointed by a county board of elections to provide assistance with mail-in absentee voting and other services to voters living at facilities such as hospitals, clinics and nursing homes.
“A MAT includes, at a minimum, two people who have different party affiliations (or, in the alternative, persons who were unanimously appointed by a bipartisan county board of elections). If you request help from a MAT, you should receive impartial, professional assistance. Their job is to help you vote, but your voting choices will remain confidential,” the state Board’s information reads in part.
Team members are authorized to, with specific legal requirements, help voters register to vote, help voters request an absentee ballot, to serve as an absentee witness, help mark the ballot, help seal the ballot and complete the absentee application, and to deliver the voted absentee ballot to the closest U.S. mail depository or mailbox, if the voter has a disability.
“In the event a resident requires the help of a team member with the actual marking of a ballot, the voter’s selection is kept in strict confidence,” the state Board’s information reads in part.
“We have a MAT team, but we haven’t used them much,” Bledsoe said.
Some long-term care facilities won’t let them in, she said.
The team has three members: one each Republican, Democrat and unaffiliated.
“And we try to have three or four teams,” Bledsoe said.
If a team is allowed to meet with a voter, or voters, at a long-term care facility the team members take the proper precautions so as not the spread or contract COVID-19. They wear gowns, a face mask or shield and use hand sanitizer.
“They will meet with a voter outside if that is what the voter wants to do,” Bledsoe said.
Robeson County Republican Party Chairman Phillip Stephens isn’t concerned about the mail-in absentee voting system being used this election cycle. It’s different from the mail-in system that has received so much news media attention in the past few months.
“Mail-in absentee voting is not new,” he said. “It has been a method for years, and controls have been adjusted over time.”
But, voters should maintain security of the ballot when filling it out and then mailing it back in accordance with the accompanying directions, Stephens said. Voters also should check their voter registration at https://vt.ncsbe.gov/RegLkup/
“They should not only check to see if the registration is correct,” he said. “They should also look at the voter history of themselves or family members who generally require assistance to make sure the history is correct in terms of whether they actually voted in the elections listed. Making sure your vote history matches your actual votes is important.”
Anyone concerned about sending ballots through the mail can contact the county Board of Elections to arrange submitting it directly, he said.
Stephens did indicate he is concerned the election won’t end with the counting of votes. Both major political parties are anticipating lawsuits challenging results and procedures, he said.
“It isn’t a matter of if a lawsuit is filed, it is really a matter of when,” Stephens said.
Robeson County has a bit of experience with legal issues delaying or even overturning an election, he said. The legal fight in 2018 over the N.C. District 9 congressional race left a seat open into the next year.
“Imagine the chaos if such challenges were applied nationwide in a presidential election,” he said.
It’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not there will be legal challenges this year, Stephens said. While some political observers and political party members fully expect legal objections to occur, the duration of the delays depends on the scale of the challenges.
“Our hope is that the race isn’t close,” he said. “Neither side can be accused as much of cheating if you win big.”
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