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Saturday January 16th

Before You Vote Episode 2: How COVID-19 has impacted the election

Listen on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Voting is complicated. Before You Vote is a new podcast from The Daily Tar Heel's City and State desk breaking down all you need to know about voting before the 2020 election.

We want you to tell us what to cover this election cycle. Take five minutes to fill out our survey by texting DTHELECTIONS to 73-224. 

In the second episode, City & State Editor Sonia Rao talks to Rachel Raper, director of the Orange County Board of Elections, and Gerry Cohen, a member of the Wake County Board of Elections, about how the pandemic is impacting the Nov. 3 election.

This episode is produced by Meredith Radford, and reported on by Kayleigh Carpenter.


The transcript of Tuesday’s episode is available below: 

Sonia Rao: Voting is complicated, especially for college students, who are often first-time voters, or have just moved to a new county or state. 

Voting during a pandemic is even more complicated. 

I’m Sonia Rao, the City & State Editor for The Daily Tar Heel. Welcome to Before You Vote, where we’ll be breaking down what you need to know about voting every Tuesday until Election Day. 

AD: This podcast is sponsored by Vote America. Reminder: Election Day is Nov. 3. As a North Carolina student you can register now using your campus or home address. You can vote early, you can vote by mail, or you can vote in person on Election Day. Make your plan at VoteAmerica.com/Students.

COVID-19 has changed the elections process across North Carolina. Rachel Raper, the director of the Orange County board of elections, said this election cycle, there’s been an emphasis on voting by mail.

Rachel Raper: Right now what we're focusing on is getting out the massive increase of voting by mail ballot requests we've received. In all of 2016, we received 5,000 absentee ballot requests. So far in this election for 2020, we have received over 20,000 absentee ballot requests, and we still have about eight weeks to go. 

SR: There’s been some concern about whether voting by mail is a safe way to send in your ballot. Raper says it is. 

RR: I don't see any controversy in it. We when you request your absentee ballot, you provide information personal to you, that we then verify before we send the ballot. When you get your ballot, you have to mark your ballot in the presence of a witness who is attesting to the fact that you are who you say you are. You'll sign a certification, the witness signs a certification. So again, the process is very safe and very secure. 

SR: There’s also a lot that happens to your ballot after you send it in. We asked Raper to go into what the members of the county board of elections do with your ballot after they receive it. 

RR: When we receive a ballot that's been mailed in, our staff will take possession of the ballot. We will then check the ballot to make sure that the voter has signed and the witness has signed and left their information. If that information is complete, we'll then scan that ballot in, you have a barcode on that ballot. And when we scan that envelope in, it says to the State Board of election system that we have received the ballot when we've received the ballot, and if their ballot is approved and ready to go, or if there's an issue with the ballot. So the voter is able to go to their voter lookup tool and see, okay, they've received my ballot, it's approved, yay, or they've received my ballot and there's a problem. Now if there's a problem with your ballot when we receive it, we're required within one business day to contact you to let you know what the problem is and the remedy for those problems. So please be aware of that, that we take this very seriously. And if there is any issue with a ballot, we do everything we can to contact the voter, not because not only because it's a best practice, because it's required by law that we do that and that's uniform statewide.

SR: Even though there is a bigger emphasis on voting by mail due to the pandemic, North Carolinaians who want to vote in person will still have the opportunity to do so. Raper said that the Orange County board of elections is taking necessary precautions to keep voters safe. 

RR: To address in person safety, we are setting up our voting locations differently both early voting locations and Election Day voting locations. We are ensuring that there's six feet but between our workers and voters. We are having people, we're calling them safety guides, to clean behind every voter at each touch point. So your voting location will look different because your safety is our top concern.

SR: I talked to Gerry Cohen, a member of the Wake County Board of Elections, to talk about how the election looks different for people administering it. 

Gerry Cohen: My name is Gerry Cohen. I live in Raleigh. I'm a member, currently a member of the Wake County Board of Elections. I've been on that for a year and a half. I also went undergraduate law school and grad school in Chapel Hill and if collected three degrees from Chapel Hill, so I certainly enjoy Carolina. I'm currently going to be teaching a class at the Duke Sanford school to graduate students this fall about elections and election data. 

SR: Cohen said that county board of elections will be offering larger voting spaces and implementing social distancing for in-person voting sites. 

GC: On the administration side, obviously we're very conscious of COVID-19 and voters’ health, this first part will relate to people doing early voting and voting on November third. There, we’re going to be socially distancing when check-in to voting with line monitors and people making sure things are distant that poll workers will all have, in all counties in North Carolina, wearing masks and PPE, and masks will be offered to voters. Many locations are using much larger sites than in the past. For instance, in Wake County, we've had early voting at Wake Tech, north and south, but using rooms that were 1500 square feet, and now we're using gyms that are 15,000 square feet. So, it will be much easier. In Orange County, at Chapel across near campus, it's still gonna be an early voting side. But the room they're going to be using the fellowship hall is, I think, three times larger than the early voting room that had been used in the primary and also 2018. So larger spaces will help with that. At Carrboro Town Hall, it's gonna be a much bigger room. The early voting site at university place will be twice the size as the room in the primary. So in Hillsboro, it's going to be like six times larger. So we're conscious of that. But, still want to have the same number of voting booths so we can still process in every county the same number of voters per hour. That’s very important. 

SR: Cohen said that while the elections process looks different for election officials, it also looks different for those sending in their ballots.

GC: A  lot more stuff is available online. Starting April 15, voters who have a North Carolina driver's license or an NC DMV special ID have been able to register to vote online or change their address online if they're already a registered voter, even within the same county or a different county, even. For voting by mail, it had been a paper form but  starting in late August, you can now fly for your absentee ballot online if you want to vote by mail. And you don't have to be away from your registration address to vote by mail. Anyone can vote by mail, have the ballot set to their registration address. And if you apply online, it's much faster because the county will have all your data there right away and probably save a day of processing but they're still paper forms. 

SR: He said there’s already a large number of people who have requested their absentee ballot. 

GC: It's been enormous. Already, more than 20 percent of all Orange County registered voters have already applied to vote by mail. I think four years ago, in Orange County all the way through the election, it was only 5 percent. So it's huge. Statewide, there's three quarters of a million people that have applied for absentee ballots, and probably the 800,000 are over by the time this podcast appears compared with about 50,000 four years ago at this time. So it's a big mode shift in voting. 

SR: Cohen said the most important thing to do if you’re voting by mail is to vote early. 

GC: The important thing if you're voting by mail is vote as soon as you can. That way any delays. When this airs, we're close to 45 days before the election, which is plenty of time to apply, get a ballot and return it. I returned it by mail. The official deadline to apply for an absentee ballot is Oct. 27. But that's really an unrealistic deadline a week before the election. If you want to vote by mail, it's strongly suggested that you apply no later than Oct. 15. 

SR: One thing I’ve heard repeated a lot is that because of the emphasis on voting by mail this election cycle, election results could be delayed up to two weeks after Election Day. I asked Cohen if this was true. 

GC: North Carolina is very different than states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, which right now can't even open the envelopes. The ballot envelopes until Election Day so those results may be delayed a week or two. In North Carolina, first of all your early votes, the ones that are in the Oct. 15 to 31, those totals are all released immediately at poll close, 7:30 p.m. on November 3. Mail ballots, as long as the Board of Elections receives them by 5 p.m., Monday, Nov. 2, those will be counted in the totals on election night. And typically 90 percent of the male ballots are received by the day before the election. The other 10 percent dribble in Tuesday through Friday of election week. Those won't be counted till Nov. 12 or 13. So there will be some that are counted nine and 10 days later, but that's probably only 10 percent. So in fact, it's likely that a higher percentage than usual in North Carolina votes will be released right at 7:30. 

SR: He also mentioned to be aware of misinformation circulating about the election, specifically regarding voting by mail. 

GC: There's so much misinformation that it's a constant job trying to beat down misinformation. For example, the comment by the President that you should vote by mail and then go to your polling place to check if it has been received, and then vote. I mean, there are so many things wrong with that, in addition to being at felony to vote twice. First of all, your precinct polling place, a North Carolina system, is really not going to know the answer to that question, because North Carolina centralized counting of absentee ballots in 1973. So going to your polling place to check on your absentee ballot you’d be 47 years late and doing that. So that stopped 47 years ago. In addition, at the county, they're not going to know if your ballot was received that day, or that Wednesday, Thursday or Friday later in the week, they're not going to know that. And counties like Wake County that have paper poll books, the deletion of names for people who have voted by mail cuts off Saturday at 9 a.m. So that's gonna be four days out of date and accounting like wake I'm not sure whether Orange uses electronic poll books on election day or paper poll books, but you know, you run the real risk of committing a felony if you vote twice. This is definitely not recommended. 

SR: Cohen recommended that instead, voters who vote by mail check the status of their ballot online. 

GC: You can check online to see if your absentee ballot has been received. And that's going to be basically in real time. You could in real time, Tuesday morning at 9 a.m, Election Day, check the status of your ballot. There's no need to go to the polling place, stand in line, make the line longer, take up the parking spaces, and then confront an election official with a question that they won't have the answer to. And I think that's so many different problems. The problem is there, every state has a different election system and making recommendations from Washington D.C., on how you should do something without any knowledge of what the actual election system is in that state is fraught with problems, to say the very least. So don't vote twice. Check your if you're voting by mail, check your status. If you get an absentee ballot and decide to vote in person, you can simply discard your absentee ballot. It's not anything at all. If you have an absentee ballot and decide you want to vote on election day, just discard it. You know, perhaps wait until you're getting in line at the polling place and tear it off and put it on your floorboard or in a trash can and then go ahead and vote it only causes a problem when you've actually sent your voted absentee ballot in, then you've basically used up your vote.

SR: In North Carolina, once you send in your absentee ballot, you can track it online by going to www.ballottrax.net. And Raper said although voting by mail is a safe option, you should choose the method that is best for you. 

RR: I think you just need to do what works best for you. Voting by mail voting early in person or voting on election day in person are all safe, secure ways to vote. So I want you to do what makes the most sense for you.

SR: There are 17 days left to register to vote in North Carolina. There are 23 days left until early voting starts. There are 35 days left to request an absentee ballot. And there are 42 days left until election day. 

For more election coverage, visit www.dailytarheel.com/section/voting, and follow us on Twitter at @DTHCityState

If you have any questions about voting you’d like us to answer, you can send us an email at city@dailytarheel.com

Tune in next Tuesday to listen to us break down how to vote in North Carolina. 

This episode was produced by Meredith Radford, and reported on by Kayleigh Carpenter. 

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