We write as Republican and Democrat election officials in western North Carolina to sound the alarm about the urgent need to prepare for the fall election. We are eyewitnesses to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic because mail-in voting has now begun for the Congressional District 11 runoff in our region.
Conducting a fair, safe and secure election involves dozens of decisions long before the voter enters a polling place or requests an absentee ballot. We’d like to share some lessons from the past several weeks, as well as recommendations for state and county policymakers.
First, based on our experience, we can anticipate a staffing shortage this fall. Many of our poll workers are elderly and are unwilling to expose themselves to health risks. We need the General Assembly to give us greater flexibility to recruit poll workers from across the county to serve in a precinct where they may not live.
Yancey, Macon, Mitchell and several other counties are combining polling places for the June runoff because of building and staffing problems. Some regular polls are being used for emergency programs and some are too small to permit adequate social distancing. Officials need to start now to identify larger spaces and reserve them for early voting and Election Day.
Our county budget is already strained by the health crisis, but funds are needed for sanitation supplies, cleaning crews, curtains and plexiglass shields, masks, signage and other materials at each voting location. We urgently need the state legislature to provide the required matching money for North Carolina to receive two large federal grants earmarked for election security and safety.
We can’t wait until July for these funds to be approved given the stress on supply chains. One example: About 4 million absentee voting envelopes (outgoing and incoming) must be ordered soon because of the large volume of mail voting expected this year — which begins September 4.
More people want to vote from home, but the majority of voters in our county and across the state don’t live with two other adults who could sign as witnesses. The legislature should evaluate the merits of returning to a one-witness requirement and approving good new ways to request a mail ballot that require the voter’s verifying identity information.
We can handle the relatively low voter participation expected in our small county for the June runoff, but procedures must be reviewed and appropriate adjustments authorized to conduct this fall’s high turnout in unclear circumstances. For example, large counties especially will need to begin reviewing the eligibility of tens of thousands of mail-in ballots before three weeks prior to Election Day, as specified in current law. Some decisions can come later but we need the legislature to settle requirements for absentee voting witnesses and request forms before July so materials can be prepared and ordered.
Finally, we must use a variety of formats and resources to educate voters about all the ways they can register and vote in these challenging times. We need the political parties, volunteer groups, media outlets and other government agencies to help provide updates and accurate information about changes in election procedures.
The two of us are registered with different parties and we disagree on some important policy issues, but we are united in our commitment to protect the integrity of our elections and the safety of our voters and election workers. We’ve seen on a small scale what the future may bring and know the time for crucial decisions is now.