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How COVID-19 may affect the 2020 election process

Orange County has recently experienced a surge in new voter registrations as North Carolina’s primary approaches.
State officials are preparing for the 2020 Presidential Election amid the coronavirus.

While the 2020 election is still more than seven months away, state and county officials are already preparing ways to allows voters to cast their ballots safely in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.

North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles customers can now register to vote online, the North Carolina State Board of Elections announced on Monday in a press release.

Before this announcement, the only way voter registration and updates to voter registration could be done through the DMV was when a customer was completing a transaction, such as a license renewal.

Now, customers don't need to complete a transaction in order to register to vote or update a registration, and the service is free. DMV customers can apply to register, change their voter address or their political party affiliation through the NCDMV voter registration website.

This applies to both people with a driver's license or a DMV-issued ID.

This announcement comes after NCSBE Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell sent a letter to the General Assembly regarding recommendations for safe election practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These suggestions include improving the accessibility and simplicity of absentee by-mail voting, ensuring poll worker availability and funding to cover the costs of these improvements, according to the press release. 

Rachel Raper, director of the Orange County Board of Elections, said these recommendations will help the state be prepared for the uncertainty regarding COVID-19 as elections draw closer. 

“It’s not just that we need to pursue a new process, it’s that we have to have these changes in statute,” Raper said. “It’s really up to the General Assembly to make those changes.”

Raper said she believes there will be a larger portion of people voting by mail in this election than in the past, and the county board is preparing for the possibility of facilitating an election during a pandemic. 

Gerry Cohen, Wake County Board of Elections member, said only about five percent of North Carolina voters typically vote by mail. 

He said switching to an all vote-by-mail system would be extremely difficult. 

“States that have gone to that have planned anywhere from two to five years in advance for making the switch,” Cohen said.

He said having a vote-by-mail system could push younger voters to vote later than they already do, and he said he is concerned they may not have access to election materials.

The recommendations in the NCSBE letter to the General Assembly include paying return postage for vote-by-mail ballots. 

“I think that will have a very significant impact on much quicker returning of the ballot by young people,” Cohen said.

In a community like Chapel Hill where a lot of the residents are students, Cohen said it is very important that voters change their address every time they move. 

“If mailing is sent to your last year dorm address, generally election mail doesn’t get forwarded — it gets sent back,” Cohen said. 

Many students will be moving into different dorms, houses or apartments in the fall, and Cohen said this could make it very difficult to vote by mail if ballots aren’t sent to the correct address.

On the other side of the age spectrum, Raper said many poll workers are in the most vulnerable age group — age 65 and older according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines — for being affected by COVID-19. 

In order to expand the pool of people who can be poll workers, Brinson Bell and the NCSBE recommended that the General Assembly make Election Day a state holiday.

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"Designating Election Day as a state holiday would expand the potential pool of poll workers to students, teachers and younger individuals," Brinson Bell said in her letter. "It would also encourage state and county employees to work the polls. These groups tend to be in a lower-risk category for COVID-19, and therefore would be an asset given current concerns."

Raper added this would give people the day off of work so they could work in the polls and would allow closed schools to be possible polling locations.

If COVID-19 social distancing recommendations or stay-at-home orders are still in place, Raper said voting in person may not be feasible.

“Socially distancing while voting is very difficult,” Raper said. “I think about having to have line formation with six feet between people, and I just don’t know how we would be able to accomplish that."

The uncertainty of how long the effects of COVID-19 will be felt makes it difficult for plans to be made ahead of time, but Cohen said they are being established well before voting starts in the fall. 

“If the restrictions end in, let’s say June or July, we’re certainly hopeful of that,” Cohen said. “Because if this is still going on in September, this will be the least of our problems.”


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