A federal judge recently ruled that North Carolina must give voters a second chance if their absentee ballot is sent in with errors. Currently, an absentee ballot missing a signature would be thrown out completely, while the new ruling grants voters “due process” if a problem occurs with their vote, just as they would if they voted in person.
Using the rejection rate from past elections and estimates of the total number of votes that will be cast by mail this year, the challengers estimated that as many as 100,000 voters could have their votes rejected without this rule change. Additionally, according to the challengers, rejection is more prevalent among black voters’ ballots than ballots as a whole, so this addresses a key equity issue that would otherwise disenfranchise black voters.
However, the legislature must not settle for merely making the change the judge ordered in this case. Indeed, the judge himself, while refusing to order many of the challengers’ requests, still noted that state leaders have an obligation to ensure that people can vote without risk to their health. They should strongly consider making changes that will make absentee voting easier for all voters.
While not specific to absentee voting, shifting the voter registration deadline back would help make absentee voting more attractive than voting in person. Currently, the deadline is Oct. 9, nearly a whole month before election day. However, there is an exception to the deadline for voters who go to early voting sites — such as Talley Student Union — which offer same-day registration.
By contrast, the deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 27, just a week before the election. If the Board of Elections believes a week is enough time for them to process and mail out an absentee ballot, certainly the voter registration deadline could be at least Oct. 20, if not even later.
At present, the state has done a fairly good job of expanding access to voting by mail for this election, including online voter registration and absentee ballot requests over email. They have also passed a considerable amount of funding to buy Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for poll workers and expand their absentee ballot processing operation.
However, they didn’t go so far as California and Nevada, who mailed out ballots automatically to registered voters, and at this point, it’s probably too late for the government to try. This would have been the best way to encourage voters to stay home, removing the obstacle of submitting the absentee request form, as well as adding the obvious benefit of a notification that the election is going on.
As it stands, only 40% of North Carolina voters are expected to cast their ballot by mail. Although this is a stark increase from the 2016 presidential election, it still means most voters will be convening in crowded polling places and risking further spread of the virus, which shows no signs of vanishing between now and November. Hopefully the money spent on outfitting polling places with PPE will prevent casting a ballot from directly harming many Americans and will give uncertain voters the confidence to make their voice heard in this monumental election.