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Second primary, voting in the pandemic

In an executive order on March 20, Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina Board of Elections moved the second Republican primary for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District to June 23. 

The election was originally scheduled for May 12. The only contest on the ballot for the second primary is between republican candidates for U.S. House of Representatives Lynda Bennett and Madison Cawthorn. 

Brinson Bell’s decision to move the primary came after consulting state emergency officials, Republican Party leaders and election officials in the counties that make up the 11th district. 

The same executive order gave county boards of elections the power to move or consolidate voting precincts for the second primary, with the consent of the State Board of Elections. The flexibility ensured polling sites would be available, safe and staffed with enough precinct officials. 

The State Board also made clear that all voters can vote by mail during every election, casting a ballot without leaving home. No excuse is necessary. The State Board office is discussing how to make voting by mail easier, while making sure that the 100 county boards of elections can process an expected increase in mail-in ballots.

On March 30, the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles and the State Board of Elections launched a service that allows online voter registration and online updates to existing voter information. 

Previously, DMV customers had to be completing another sort of transaction on the DMV website in order to update voter information or register to vote online. The updated service is free and is intended to assist boards of elections at a time when the pandemic has restricted public access to county board offices. 

Because the State Board is requiring counties within the 11th congressional district to submit plans for the new June 23 election day, County board of elections offices have been working to determine the safest and most effective voting plans for the second primary. 

Haywood County Board of Elections approved a plan on April 21 to be reviewed by the State Board of Elections. The plan includes consolidating 29 original precincts to 11. Each affected voter would be notified by mail and signage would be posted at precincts not in use, with information about where voters should be voting on June 23. 

Macon County presented a plan to the State Board of Elections that would consolidate 15 polling precincts to three sites for the second primary. Elections Director Melanie Thibault said “the turnout for a second primary is very low. And with our current situation at this time, we are preparing for an even lower turnout.”

Macon County plans to have PPE for all poll workers and voters on Election Day. 

“I would strongly advise voters that would like to vote in the Second Primary Election that are worried about contracting COVID-19 to contact their County Board of Elections and request an absentee by mail ballot to be sent to them,” Thibault said.

Jackson County Board of Elections office, though closed to the public, has voter registration forms and absentee request forms directly outside its office with a secure drop box that staff check daily. Elections Director Lisa Lovedahl said that because health conditions are likely to fluctuate prior to the second primary, the board is making plans that can adjust with the county’s needs. 

“We are securing safety glass shields, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, gloves and masks for the office and polling sites. There will be various plans for appropriate social distancing based on conditions,” she said. 

Jackson County also proposed a plan to the state board to combine precinct locations at the biggest precincts available. Precincts were chosen for their large open areas inside and outside that could allow for social distancing on election day. 

“By combining locations we anticipate adequate staffing on election day, even if conditions deteriorate only days before election day,” Lovedahl said. “Curbside voting in the voter’s vehicles has always been available to voters with barriers to coming inside to vote. We hope to expand this process for voters who may not wish to come inside for health concerns. Thinking outside the box, but within the law will allow us to process voters as efficiently as possible while ensuring everyone’s safety.”

In March, Brinson Bell convened the Task Force on Elections & COVID-19 Response. Made up of members of the State Board, county boards of elections and Emergency Management Representatives, the task force has recommended several legislative changes for safer elections during the pandemic. 

For up-to-date news and information about the novel coronavirus and its effect on North Carolina elections, go to www.ncsbe.gov/coronavirus.

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