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.
In the seventh episode, City & State Editor Sonia Rao talks to N.C. Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson-Bell and UNC political science professor Marc Hetherington about election security during the pandemic.
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. Election Day is Nov. 3, but you can vote early in North Carolina until Oct. 31. Also, in North Carolina, you can register and vote on the same day during the early vote period. Make your plan to vote at VoteAmerica.com/Students.
SR: Due to the pandemic, there’s been a push to vote by mail for the Nov. 3 election. Some have questioned the validity of absentee ballots and whether or not they cause higher amounts of voter fraud. We talked to N.C. Board of Elections Director Karen-Brinson Bell about whether or not voters have to be worried.
Karen Brinson-Bell: Not just myself, but all 100 county election offices, you know, our sole mission is to ensure that every eligible voter has the right to vote. And in this pandemic year, it's to do so without fear of disease. So, you know, our charge each and every day, when we, you know, work is to make sure that we're ensuring the integrity of the election.
SR: She said it’s the job of state and county Board of Elections officers to help keep elections as secure as possible.
KB: We wear all those hats, knowing that the ultimate mission, whether it's, you know, dealing with cyber security or physical security, or just, you know, someone's personal security even have their information, the the end goal is to make sure that we are, you know, securing their right to vote, and that they can carry out that, you know, their franchise without, you know, without concern and that they know that we've upheld the integrity, and that it's going to be a fair and smooth process.
SR: Brinson-Bell said North Carolina Law allows county boards to process absentee ballots up to five weeks before the election.
KBB: The county boards of elections began meeting on Sept. 29. Those boards are made up of five members from the community. Three are Democrats and two Republicans as our current makeup exists. And they meet and review staff recommendations about whether an envelope has been completed fully for the absentee by mail, meaning it has a voter signature witness signature in the witness information. Provided that it has all those components completed and then they approve those ballots, or those ballot envelopes.
SR: She said board of elections members open the envelopes, remove the ballots and insert them into the tabulator, but don’t tabulate the actual results until Election Day.
KBB: Then we release those results at 7:30 when the polls close. Similarly, as people are voting during the 17 day early voting period, we don't find out the results each evening as we close up those early voting sites. That's also, you know, maintains the chain of custody and reconciliation practices. And we tabulate those results on Election Day also.
SR: She said considerable turnout through early voting and absentee voting means a significant amount of results will be ready by Election Day.
KB: We may actually be releasing 80 percent of the ballots that will be cast during the election, which is really unprecedented.
SR: She said over 600,000 absentee ballots have been returned in North Carolina, which is a very large number for the state.
KBB: The hardest part for us was just going from a situation where we only had typically three to 5 percent of our ballots cast to, you know, this tremendous increase in volume, I mean, to be over 600,000 ballots that have been returned through absentee by mail voting, when we didn't even have 200,000 cast for the entire election in 2016. Just you know, that created some, you know, things that we had to work through.
SR: In North Carolina, absentee ballots require a voter and witness signature. Brinson-Bell said if a voter is missing a witness signature, a new voting packet will be reissued to the voter, and the ballot can be fixed by signing a document, called the cure affadavit process.
KB: We're in good shape about 97 percent of our ballots were completed correctly or the ballot envelopes were completed correctly. So we've got about 3 percent that we're needing to make contact with statewide that represents about seven to 10,000 that were not done quite correctly for one of the particular issues. And so you know, the county boards of elections are in the process of making contact with those voters and getting that corrected.
SR: Brinson-Bell said before the pandemic, the Board of Election’s main focus was on cybersecurity. She said since 2016, there’s been a concentrated effort in the state to train election officials to be able to react to cybersecurity situations.
KBB: It's meant we have cyber security advisors on staff now we have partnerships at the state and federal level, with agencies who, professionally, their job is to track cybersecurity concerns. We have monitoring devices, sensors, and things that are in place to ensure the safety of our websites of our databases. Already, our voting systems were actually in a very secure place, because we do not allow for our voting systems be connected to the internet. So that greatly reduces the possibility of any kind of attack on our voting systems. But for those things that do have to be connected, our network database, our website, obviously, and you know, our exposure, just through email, you know, we have have put systems in place to monitor and, and firewalls and things of that nature to block attacks. And, you know, we're, we're always cautious, but we we can say that there's been no successful attack on any of North Carolina systems.
SR: She also said voter fraud is not a big problem in North Carolina.
KBB: There is a misconception about voter fraud. There have been studies nationwide in our state, you know, you name it, that show that voter fraud is is actually just very miniscule, there really is not a voter fraud problem. And we have to think about the fact that when we say voter fraud, we're meaning that the voter themselves is taking steps to try to undermine their vote or undermine the election. And that's really, you know, what we have more often is a voter participation problem because we do not have everyone who's registered to vote participating in our election.
SR: In North Carolina, photo ID is not required to vote. There’s been some controversy over the issue in the past few years. Brinson-Bell said it’s possible to have a safe and fair election without photo ID.
KBB: When someone goes into the polling place, they state their name, they state their address, their officials working there, and observers working there who are monitoring to see that someone does not present themselves as another person, we actually have an investigations team that looks into this, whenever we have a situation that's brought to our attention of concern, our system, actually, as a whole, our database, or our electronic poll books system, you know, is set up so that we know if someone's attempted to double vote, they can't it's in our system that they've already cast their ballot absentee by mail or during the in person, one stop early voting period.
SR: Brinson-Bell said the board of elections focuses more on other aspects of undermining an election, such as ballot harvesting, voter intimidation, and other acts that would harm the ability of someone to cast their vote.
KBB: North Carolina has gotten A lot of attention because we did call for a new election in congressional district nine, after it was determined that there was an individual who was going through the act of ballot harvesting, and undermining the trust that a voter gave to him and people associated with him, that they would take that voters ballot, properly witness it and properly return it to the county board of elections. And they didn't. That's what ballot harvesting is, is when someone is maliciously or, you know, Ill intended reason is trying to gather up ballots, you know, and define the trust of that voter.
SR: She said there have been laws put in place that increase the penalties for acts like ballot harvesting.
KBB: But also, you know, we've tried to take steps that will help a voter be able to cast their ballot independently and not feel dependent upon someone, you know, to assist them in that process.
SR: Marc Hetherington is a political science professor at UNC whose research focuses on public opinion and political behavior.
Marc Hethrington: I'm really actually excited to be living in a place like North Carolina, where the vote actually matters, you know, the elections that I'm accustomed to being part of, in the state where I've been living, everything is so tilted in one direction that it doesn't feel, you know, exactly like, you know, your vote matters. In North Carolina, it will.
SR: He said his research has found that while there’s not a lot of trust in government bodies, this lack of trust doesn’t usually extend to groups like boards of elections.
MH: I don't think that people think about counting votes very much when they think about the government anyway. Now, that's interesting and important in itself, because what are leaders can do is either, you know, talk about those institutions, like boards of elections, and, you know, state elections officials and things along those lines, and say positive things about them. And as a result, we'll have a lot of trust and confidence in them, but because we don't have opinions about them, if our leader say they're incompetent, and they're gonna mess everything up, some of us will, you know, believe that too. Because, you know, we don't have a well formed opinion about those parts of the government.
SR: He said to him, election security means people’s votes are cast freely and fairly. But he said he thinks the term has become very politicized.
MH: We've heard a lot of, you know, concerns expressed, especially by President Trump, you know, that election security is going to be problematic, that fraud is going to be everywhere. And there's no evidence out there in the world that widespread or even minor cases of voter fraud happen with, you know, very much frequency. And so, you know, my sense is, is that election security is kind of be kind of being used as a political Prop, in a lot of ways to call into question the outcome of the election, if it doesn't turn out the way people want it to turn out. So this is something the losers will be able to point to and say, Hey, I would have won if election security have been better.
SR: Hetherington said he thinks this has been exacerbated due to the push for voting by mail.
MH: And you know, part of it is legit, right? Because, you know, I don't know about you, but anytime I do something for the first time, I'm not very good at it. And a lot of states are going to be doing, you know, much bigger mail voting efforts this year than compared with the past. So they're going to be problems, they're going to be mistakes. But, you know, again, how we react to it. You know, mail voting, really is all about how our leaders talk about it.
SR: He said states like Oregon, Washington and California that have been doing mail-in voting for a long time haven’t had problems, and fraud isn’t demonstrably easier with mail-in voting.
MH: And, you know, if leaders talked about it like that, and encourage their people, you know, to Vote, you know, by mail, because it's, you know, it's a safe way to vote during a pandemic, then we would have confidence in it. But if one set of leaders and in this case, the President in particular is saying that people shouldn't vote like that, and that's going to undermine the confidence that his followers, Republicans, in this case having mail voting.
SR: As for photo ID, Hetherington said while many countries hand out national identification cards to citizens, in the U.S., drivers licenses are the most common forms of identification.
MH: But not everybody has a driver's license, you know, and there is a class bias to who doesn't, there is a racial bias, to who doesn't. And, you know, all of those things tend to fall fall disproportionately on especially people of color. So what the end of the courts have ruled is that requiring these IDs amounts to something like a poll tax, you know, that it's designed to disenfranchise certain people, you know, in a way.
SR: And he said there’s no real reason to worry.
MH: Even without photo ID. There's no evidence that frauds are being perpetrated in elections, it's all been, you know, kind of a talking point, as opposed to anything that's real. And, you know, usually, you know, the people who do those talking points for people who benefit from certain people not voting. And that seems to be the case. You know, in this day and age.
SR: North Carolina is a swing state. Because of this, Hetherington said even if election results are delayed, North Carolina will be an indicator of what the election as a whole will look like.
MH: So if North Carolina turns out to be, you know, looking like it's tipping one way or the other, especially if it's tipping towards the Democrats, you know, that's a state that the democrats don't actually need to win in order to win the presidency. And if they win North Carolina, on Election Day, and will probably be able to tell on election day in North Carolina, then that probably means the Democrats won, you know, in 2020.
SR: He said in his home state of Pennsylvania, absentee ballots can’t be counted until the day of the election, unlike North Carolina.
MH: You know, there'll be millions of ballots that, you know, people are going to be sticking in the machines all day, you know, on election day, so we won't get those votes until a couple or a few days afterwards. And that's another swing state. So, you know, we won't, we won't really have a sense of that. So I would look, you know, at North Carolina, you know, as some indicator of what the election might look like.
SR: Early voting is underway, and ends October 31. The last day to request an absentee ballot is today. And there are seven days left until election day.
If you encounter a problem at the polls or with your ballot, let us know by texting “ASK DTH” to 73-224.
If you have any questions about voting you’d like us to answer, you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tune in next Tuesday for our Election Day episode.
This episode was produced by Meredith Radford and reported on by Kayleigh Carpenter.
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