SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — County Board of Elections offices across the state are scrambling to line up enough early voting polling locations and hours in order to meet new state requirements.
Friday, North Carolina State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell issued an emergency order, requiring county boards to expand early voting locations and hours to accommodate for additional space in light of Covid-19.
Many boards had already finalized their early voting plans, due July 31 before the order extended them to Aug. 7. This created last-minute changes and special meetings so boards can come into compliance with their plans.
“To say that it was shocking would be an understatement,” Brunswick County Board of Elections Director Sara Knotts said of the new requirements at a meeting Monday afternoon.
The new rules
New state requirements ask county boards to provide one polling location per every 20,000 registered voters. Boards must also keep polling locations open for a minimum of 10 hours during the first and second weekend of the early voting period — a difficulty for areas that traditionally host limited Sunday voting hours. Local boards already had plans to beef up staffing to meet expanded early voting availability even before the new requirements came in.
Both Brunswick and Pender County meet the new polling place rule while New Hanover County has until Aug. 7 to either find two new locations or request a state waiver.
New guidance included in the emergency order states: “voters will not
be required to wear a face covering to vote,” directly contrasting Governor Roy Cooper’s standing executive order. State election officials risk denying someone of their right to vote should the voter refuse to wear a mask. Mask-wearing will be required of poll workers and strongly encouraged for voters. This new allowance could give potential poll workers, who tend to fall into the older, high-risk category, pause before signing up in an election where their labor is vital.
Though it’s been fiercely politicized, a surge in absentee voting would alleviate pressure on the polls. In North Carolina, voters do not need to provide a reason for why they are choosing to vote absentee by mail.
Absentee requests are already up fourfold statewide compared to the same time in 2016. Delays and disruptions in voting during the pandemic have already taken place in Washington, D.C., Nevada, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, with Georgia experiencing disastrous voting conditions.
With more than 71% ballots cast early in Brunswick County in the last general election, fine-tuning the early voting plan is essential. General elections always bring out higher numbers to the polls, mostly driven by an interest in the presidential race.
Brunswick County was already prepared to meet the new state polling location rule, with 108,464 registered voters as of this month.
Monday, the Brunswick Board of Elections voted to add a new Leland location, bringing the total number of early voting polling sites to seven. Knotts had budgeted for six. Any cost in excess of what was budgeted may be eligible to be covered under CARES Act funding.
She told the board seven total locations will be a challenge but that her staff would find a way to make it work. The biggest difficulty will be finding enough temporary poll workers to fill the extra site and hours, Knotts said.
Knotts was able to secure new polling locations with the assistance of Brunswick Senior Resources Inc. Because the senior centers are closed, the county plans to use four of BSRI’s locations in Supply, Southport, Calabash, and Leland. The new Leland location gives the county a second spot outside of the Leland Cultural Arts Center, a hot spot in all election cycles, in case something goes awry.
The board also adopted new weekend hours for its satellite locations, exceeding the 10-hour minimum.
To date, Brunswick County has received more than 3,000 absentee ballot request forms — more than the 2,400 total absentee ballots cast during the 2016 general election. Knotts said state officials have told county boards to prepare for a 40% increase in absentee voting this cycle.
“If we get the 40% that would help alleviate the strain at the early voting sites and on Election Day if we’re short-staffed. So, perfect world? We would see more people choosing to vote by absentee,” she said after the meeting Monday. “It takes out the fear of the unknown of not having staffing.”
Working for the Board of Elections since 2006, Knotts has grown used to meeting last-minute changes in recent years.
“It seems like the past probably four years we’ve been becoming accustomed to having curveballs. I really think that the challenges the pandemic is bringing to light, it’s unlike anything I could have dreamt. Who would have thought that I would have to think about whether poll workers would be willing to wear a mask all day?” she said.
On July 14, New Hanover County’s Board of Elections adopted its early voting plan, shifting two sites to roughly double the capacity at each and adding on one new site.
Even with the new site, at six polling places total, New Hanover County is still below the eight required through the new state rule, with 169,447 registered voters. Elections Director Rae Hunter-Havens said the board may have to schedule a special meeting before the plan is due Aug. 7 to either meet compliance with the new rules or request a waiver.
Analyzing voter turnout data from recent years, Hunter-Havens said voters in the Castle Hayne area tend to turn out on Election Day and vote at the Government Center. Hoping to reduce lines and wait times, the board added a new early voting site at Cape Fear Community College’s (CFCC) North Campus. Early voting that previously took place in the Carolina Beach police training room has shifted to the community center and voting at the CFCC Health Sciences building site will now take place at the CFCC Wilma W. Daniels Gallery.
These decisions were made to maximize capacity at each polling site with Covid-19 in mind, Hunter-Havens said.
“Would I love to have a huge gym? Sure. But it can be very difficult if they are having classes to shut down a site like that for 20 days,” she said. “We’re trying to sort of figure out what can we do to provide voters a safe, secure way to vote without really interfering with the operations of other things that go on within the muni or the county.”
Though it’s not yet confirmed, the New Hanover County Board of Elections is looking into the possibility of providing a wait-time application for voters so they can view estimates of the lines before voting. The department already has to hire an additional 10 to 15 employees just to manage the wave of absentee requests, which come in by about 75 daily.
“We definitely seem to be getting more requests in at this stage of the process than we have in the past,” Hunter-Havens said. So far, the county has received 3,800 requests. In 2016, New Hanover County voters cast a total of 6,200 absentee ballots. The county is preparing to handle up to 45,000 requests this year.
If voters submit requests forms early, Hunter-Havens said they will also receive their ballots early and reduce stress on the county’s elections department. “It’s going to be easier for us to manage that process the more forms we can get early as opposed to voters waiting until mid-September perhaps to submit their forms,” she said.
The county board is looking to incur an estimated $220,000 in excess expenses, which could be covered by CARES Act and Help America Vote Act funds, according to Hunter-Havens. Up to 70 additional poll workers may be needed this cycle compared to 2016. New positions, including sanitation specialists and line management officials to monitor social distancing will be on-site at each polling location.
“With the coronavirus, we’re just trying to make sure that voters understand not only how they can vote, but what the safeguards are that we’re implementing so that as they make their choices about what voting methods they wanted to use that they understand that we’ll do everything we can to make those safe choices and secure choices so that they’re able to cast that vote in a way that they feel is not somehow compromising their health,” Hunter-Havens said.
Pender County has more than enough polling sites to meet the new rule to serve its 42,000 registered voters. With five total early voting sites planned this cycle, Elections Director Susan Williams said the availability of polling locations should not present an issue.
The Pender County Board of Elections approved their voting plan July 14 and plan to amend it during an emergency meeting Tuesday evening. A few hours short of the 10-hour requirement on the first two weekends, Williams said she anticipates the board will add extended hours to the second Saturday.
Pender County has received 400 absentee requests so far, a considerable increase from what election officials are used to seeing this early on, Williams said.
How to vote absentee
Absentee ballot request forms are open now through Tuesday, Oct. 27 at 5 p.m. Once voters fill out the form, county elections departments deliver ballots by mail. Ballots must be completed in front of one adult witness and postmarked by 5 p.m. on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3.
Completed absentee ballot request forms must be submitted online, in-person, by fax, or mail before the county delivers a ballot by mail. Submit completed absentee request forms to:
New Hanover County:
- By email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- By fax: (910) 798-7295
- Delivered in person or by mail: New Hanover County Board of Elections, 230 Government Center Drive, Suite 38, Wilmington, NC 28403
- By email: email@example.com
- By fax: (910) 253-2618
- Delivered in person or by mail: Brunswick County Board of Elections, 75 Stamp Act Dr NE, Building H, Bolivia, NC, 28422
- By email: PenderBOE@pendercountync.gov
- By fax: (910) 259-1269
- Delivered in person or by mail: Pender County Board of Elections, PO Box 1232, Burgaw, NC, 28425
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org