NEW HANOVER COUNTY — For 26 voters who made an error in the absentee voting process, the New Hanover County Board of Elections decided the fate of their ballots Tuesday.
In a special meeting, the board was tasked with reviewing absentee ballot applications. It recommended approval of 3,876 that appeared to have no issues, 95 that were “cured” of mistakes with affidavits and 12 that were improperly collected. Twenty-six were rejected.
Those 26 applications belonged to voters who had unqualified people – such as their boyfriend or girlfriend, roommate and even, in one case, an employee – deliver their ballots. Per state statute, only “near relatives” and legal guardians can drop off another person’s ballot.
The people who delivered the envelopes were warned upon dropping them off that the ballots could be “spoiled” – hence not counted. Nonetheless, the county is still required to take the ballot.
“We try to educate the best we can in that moment but a lot of times, at that point, they just want to turn the ballot in,” elections director Rae Hunter-Havens said.
Regardless of the statute, the state board of elections is leaving it up to county boards to determine whether the ballots returned this way are acceptable.
“Some county boards have been approving these,” Hunter-Havens said. “It’s kind of a gray area that requires county board decision.”
The majority of the New Hanover County board chose to rely on the state law to make its decision to disapprove of the ballots. Members spent some time during the meeting searching through the law book for the language that asserts all ballots “shall be” delivered in person, or by the voter’s near relative or legal guardian.
“I was looking for whether it said we had to require that or we ought to,” board member Jonathan Washburn said. “It says shall.”
Board member Derrick Miller was the sole “nay” in the 4-1 vote. He argued if the law was “so clear cut,” the state board would not have issued legal guidance saying the board could still approve the ballots.
“I have yet to see anything that raises a red flag to me that suggests that we should fear that this was not the voter’s intent,” Miller said. Earlier in the meeting, the elections director assured the board the ballots were returned by one individual at a time, not in batches.
Ninety-five ballots were approved after each was “cured” of deficiencies with an affidavit from the voter.
Under a recent court ruling, cure certifications are allowed for voters to fix issues such as a missing voter signature, printed name or address. However, the lack of a witness signature is one of the few deficiencies that cannot be corrected.
Board members Russ Bryan and Washburn were critical of the court order, but the motion to approve still passed unanimously.
Twelve applications were also up for discussion because the ballots were not collected and logged correctly, which could have been the fault of the election staff.
“We don’t want to penalize the voter for a poll worker error,” Hunter-Havens said.
Washburn voted to recommend approval but said he didn’t like it, adding, “It’s a little bit dirty. The system has broken down here.” It passed 4-1, board member Evelyn Adger opposed.
After the meeting, each envelope was reviewed to ensure it met requirements and then inserted into a voting machine. Results are tabulated Nov. 3.
As of Wednesday, 90,665 people in New Hanover County have so far hit the poles, a turnout of 51%. Of those, more than 22,500 cast ballots by mail and 68,100-plus visited one-stop voting locations.
Nearly half of registered voters in the state – 3.6 million North Carolinians – have already voted in the 2020 election.
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