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Thursday, May 23, 2024

NHC Board of Elections reviews absentee ballots protocol

The New Hanover County Board of Elections discussed absentee voting regulations on Tuesday.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Board of Elections discussed new absentee voting rules on Tuesday, hoping to increase efficiency for the upcoming election.

“The overall process of receiving and reviewing absentee ballots has become significantly more complicated now that the new photo ID requirement is here,” elections director Rae Hunter-Havens said at the board meeting.

The board focused on a special type of ballot — the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. UOCAVA is a federal law allowing active-duty military members, their families, and U.S. citizens living abroad an option for expedited registration and voting.

The board unanimously agreed on a resolution to authorize staff, who have to be approved by the BOE, to initiate preparatory steps — including “duplication.”

Duplication is the process in which election officials copy a voter’s ballot onto a new ballot. Traditionally, duplication is carried out on damaged or defective ballots because voting machines cannot scan them.

Hunter-Havens said all UOCAVA ballots have to be duplicated because they are printed PDF files. The new authorization allows staff to duplicate UOCAVA ballots outside a board meeting, but mandates them to present both the duplicate and original ballot to staff before it is scanned. She argued allowing staff to carry out this role would make the election process more efficient.

“It can be very time-consuming to duplicate a ballot,” she said. “It could add an additional 15, 20, 25 minutes to the board.”

Hunter-Havens said the election board staff sent out more than 120 UOCAVA ballots to voters last Friday. She anticipated the new rules would save board meeting time in the busy upcoming election season.

There were 244 UOCAVA ballots approved in the 2022 general election, according to Hunter-Havens.

The duplication team consists of three people and must include a Democrat and a Republican. The first person will call the selections of the voter. A second person will then make a mark in the ovals on the replicated ballot. A third person is there to witness the action. 

The multi-phase duplication process is meant to ensure against tampering.

Hunter-Havens also guided the board through the multi-step verification process in compliance of the state’s photo-ID requirement.

Absentee ballots are made available 30 days before Election Day. They are mailed out to voters who made a timely request and include two ballot envelopes — a larger envelope for the ballot and a smaller envelope for a copy of the photo ID or a photo ID exception form.

If absentee voters cannot provide a photo, they must either provide their N.C. driver’s license number or the last four digits of their social security number to verify their identity. Absentee voters then must confirm they are who they say they are through either signatures from two witnesses or a notary — a public official entrusted to witness document signings.

Later in the meeting, board member Bruce Kemp raised a motion to require the scanning of all absentee ballots on Election Day. He also called for the board to review each absentee meeting — a weekly meeting where election staff scan but do not count ballots. 

There are typically already two BOE members present but Kemp asked for the full board to review weekly reports the staff maintains — including team members, party affiliation, and time of initiation and completion — during absentee meetings. He also asked for the director to affirm after each board review that all electoral regulations have been met.

“That way we can confirm what we’ve done with the state board,” Kemp said. “That improves our standing with folks who might otherwise question us.”

Chair Derick Miller countered that ballots are already scanned in the absentee meetings and additional measures would be redundant. He also said it would put excessive strain on staff.

“I see the advantages you see to that approach, the pros and cons of that approach,” Miller said. “While it might be technically feasible, the strain it would put on all the election processes that must be completed on Election Day and immediately after.”

Kemp countered that scanning ballots a second time and board reviews of absentee meetings would not take much additional time. The board unanimously approved the motion, but not before Miller brought up a motion Kemp raised in May.

At that meeting, Kemp called for authorizing the public to witness absentee meetings, which Miller said was another example of excessive administrative steps. Kemp cited N.C. Gen. Stat. 163-182.2 (a) (3) at the spring meeting, which grants any member of the public the right to “witness the vote count at any level.”

Kemp withdrew the motion after Hunter-Havens told him the meetings were not for vote-counting, but making sure ballots were scanned and ready for Election Day.


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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