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Local party leaders urge voters who want to vote absentee to request ballots early

LUMBERTON — The chairs of the two major political parties in Robeson County are encouraging voters to cast their ballots via absentee voting this election cycle, however, one believes past events open the process to error.

The State Board of Elections has predicted a significant increase in voting by absentee ballot because of health and safety concerns posed by COVID-19. The Board recently released information reflecting the expected increase.

County election boards in North Carolina received absentee ballot requests from 9,953 Democrats, 9,643 Republicans and 7,223 unaffiliated voters by Aug. 23, 2016, according to the state Board. The Board has received requests from 156,960 Democratic, 44,867 Republican and 93,275 unaffiliated voters as of Aug. 18 for the 2020 general election on Nov. 3.

Anyone who cannot vote at a polling site on Election Day “should” request an absentee ballot and “certainly” mail it in, said Phillip Stephens, Robeson County Republican Party chairman.

“We hope it wouldn’t delay results, but obviously that may be the reality,” Stephens said.

Past events have cast a shadow of uncertainty when it comes to voting by absentee ballots, he said.

”[A]s evidenced by the 9th Congressional race affair in Bladen County, it was absentee ballot irregularities that forced a special election,” Stephens said.

During the 2018 race, Mark Harris, a Baptist minister, got the most votes, but an investigation soon began into allegations revolving around McCrae Dowless, who was hired for Harris’ campaign in Bladen County. Witnesses told state election officials that Dowless gathered hundreds of absentee ballots from Bladen County voters with the help of his assistants. Dowless’ workers testified at a state Board hearing that they were directed to collect blank or incomplete ballots, forge signatures on them and even fill in votes for candidates.

Still, Stephens believes votes cast by absentee ballots are more secure than votes cast by mail when it comes to voter identification.

“Unlike absentee voting, there are fewer safeguards,” Stephens said. “Proof of residency, signature verification and registration verification are a few of the safeguards that are lowered when ballots are mailed at random.

“Whereas requested absentees at least have some measure of integrity protection. Duplicate registrations, inaccurate voter rolls, ballot harvesting and lost ballots are always problematic when random mailings occur.”

Robeson County Democratic Party Chairperson Pearlean Revels said she has complete confidence in the absentee ballot process and views it as the better option when considering the uncertainty posed by COVID-19.

“I support it very highly,” Revels said. “The coronavirus has gotten people a little uneasy about getting out.

“Absentee has been around for ages. Right now, I don’t understand what the issues are, unless it’s about the post office.”

She has “confidence” in the county Board of Elections office and believes that this year’s election will be “carried out the way it needs to be carried out,” Revels said.

Robeson County BOE Director Tina Bledsoe has said the office has hired additional staff and bought letter folding equipment to reduce the time needed to send ballots by mail.

Despite the pandemic, both parties have resumed get-out-the-vote drives.

“I think Republicans and Democrats have both been creative in get-out-the-vote efforts this year,” Stephens said. “I know we’ve used vital media, like Zoom meetings and such, quite a bit.”

Revels said the Democratic Party has held several get-out-the-vote drives, not only registering voters but encouraging them to vote using the absentee ballot process. One group has been out in Fairmont daily, she said.

“We do talk to people and emphasize the absentee voting,” Revels said. “We will help them and assist them. The most important thing is to make sure you get out and vote.”

The state Elections Board recently released guidelines for students at colleges and universities who choose to vote by mail during the pandemic, and are directing them to request that their ballots be sent to an address where they know they will receive it.

“We want to ensure all eligible voters have the information they need to successfully cast their ballot in this important election during these unique times,” said Karen Brinson Bell, state Board executive director.

Further guidelines for students include:

— If you are temporarily living away or displaced from the residence where you are registered to vote and you intend to return later, then you are not considered to have lost your place of residence. It can remain your residential address for voting.

— If you are registered to vote at your campus address and have not requested an absentee ballot, you may request a ballot and have it sent to an address of your choosing. This is the best option for students who are registered to vote at their campus address and know they will be leaving their campus address for the remainder of the semester.

— If you are registered to vote at your campus address and unsure if you are leaving campus, please wait until you know your housing situation before requesting a ballot.

— Students who have already requested a ballot but must leave campus because of COVID-19 or for any other reason may submit a new request to have their ballot sent to a different address. The first request will not be fulfilled. Students or others who submit a new form can make a note on the new form, such as “Updated” or “Changed” to alert county elections workers that it is an updated request. They can also email or contact their county board office to ensure the ballot is sent to the updated address.

— However, if you have abandoned your place of residence and intend to stay at your new address indefinitely, then you should register at your new residential address.

— If you will be away from your residential or mailing address, be sure to include the address where you want your ballot to be sent on your absentee ballot request. If you have moved within your county, you may use the request form to update your residential address and/or mailing address.

An online absentee ballot request portal will be available on the State Board of Elections’ website, NCSBE.gov, by Sept. 1, according to the state Board. This will allow all registered voters to request a ballot online. Beginning Sept. 4, county boards of election will begin to send ballots to voters who request them.

The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 27. However, election officials strongly encourage voters to request a ballot before then to ensure absentee ballot return deadlines can be met.

As always, all voters may vote in person during the early voting period, October 15-31, or on Election Day, which is Nov. 3.

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