When Orange County held its municipal elections on Tuesday, many voters in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area had already cast their ballot.
According to the Orange County Board of Elections, 6,863 people took advantage of early voting this year. This is a jump from 2019, when 4,293 people voted early.
Rachel Raper, director of the Orange County Board of Elections, said that the county offered two early voting methods: absentee ballots and early in-person voting.
“You can request an absentee ballot be mailed to you and we can mail that anywhere in the world,” Raper said. “Or, starting the third Thursday before the election, you can just go to one of our early voting sites.”
Those interested in voting through absentee ballot had to use an absentee ballot request form, which could have been submitted either in person or by mail.
This year’s municipal elections featured important races, including those for Chapel Hill mayor, Carrboro mayor, Chapel Hill Town Council, Carrboro Town Council and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education.
Carrboro Town Council member Randee Haven-O'Donnell, who was reelected Tuesday according to unofficial election results, said that the number of open seats this year likely encouraged greater voting activity.
“There's got to be something that propels folks to get out and get out early,” Haven-O'Donnell said. “The school board election for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is huge.”
Current Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle, who did not seek reelection this year, said that COVID-19 kept many voters from hitting the polls in person last election cycle, but that people felt more comfortable doing so this year.
“There was extra concern about distancing and masking and everything like that,” Lavelle said. “But I think folks, while we’re still being safe, feel much less vulnerable going out and voting this time.”
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and policy institute, a single eight or 12-hour voting period on Election Day doesn’t provide enough time for many voters to exercise their civic duty. Early in-person voting, which begins two weeks before Election Day in Orange County, attempts to remedy this by offering voters a longer period in which they can cast their ballots.
“People work all kinds of crazy hours, and people have families and can’t get out to vote on just one day,” Haven-O'Donnell said. “In a true democracy, we allow as much time as possible to vote and as many different opportunities in which to vote.”
Raper said Orange County has instilled other ways to make voting easier. The county offers same-day registration at all early voting sites, remains available over the weekends and, this year, held early in-person voting at four different locations.
Orange County’s actions have made a significant difference for residents, Lavelle said.
“It’s almost hard for me to imagine a day where we just used to have one voting day,” she said. “There’s ample time, including Sundays, for people who have all different kinds of work schedules to be able to go and vote.”
How these programs will impact the future of voting in the county remains to be seen. However, Raper said that the increase in this year’s early vote may indicate a new trend.
“We're not sure if this means that this will just be a higher voter turnout in general for this election or if voter behavior is just shifting to preferring to vote early," Raper said.
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