Amid a global pandemic, local elections directors are gearing up for an unprecedented election season.

With the general election less than four months away, both directors for Forsyth and Guilford counties say they are working to make voting as easy and safe as possible for November’s election.

“We are committed to making sure we can provide all of the necessary resources and all of the polling places,” said Tim Tsujii, the Forsyth County elections director. “This is an ongoing process between now and Election Day.”

Because of the coronavirus, both Tsujii and Charlie Collicutt, his counterpart in Guilford County, say they are anticipating a huge increase in the number of absentee or mail-in ballot requests.

Tsujii said on Monday that his office has received more than 3,000 requests for mail-in ballots — more than double the amount at this point in 2016. Collicutt said his office has received 6,500 requests so far.

A recent analysis by Michael Blitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College, found that more than 65,000 absentee ballot requests had been statewide made by mid-July. That’s a fourfold increase from this point in 2016.

Despite President Trump’s recent claims that absentee ballots would somehow lead to a rigged election, both Tsujii and Collicutt said that vote-by-mail is a safe and secure option for those concerned about voting in person.

“This is a good way to vote,” said Collicutt. “If you’re worried about not coming to the polling place, do it. We count these ballots and we do it in a transparent way. There is a one-to-one ratio. I’m not worried about our office being flooded by fraudulent ballots. It is a good and safe way to vote.”

What is an absentee ballot and how do you get one?

Despite its somewhat misleading name, absentee ballots are the same as in-person ballots, the only difference being they allow individuals to vote from home. Rather than going to the polling place during early voting or on Election Day, voters can make a request for an absentee ballot, fill it out when it arrives, and then send it back to be counted.

“It’s the same ballot as voters get on Election Day,” Collicutt said. “There are bubbles next to the names, you fill it in and stick it in an envelope.”

All of the ballots get counted and tabulated for the final election results.

However, there are a few rules when it comes to absentee voting. In recent weeks, the state legislature passed a law that eases some restrictions on absentee voting. Before, an absentee voter had to have either two witnesses when filling out the ballot or a notary present. For this election, a new law reduces the number of witnesses to one. But the witness must be there physically and can’t be watching virtually because the witness has to sign the ballot as well.

The options for requesting a mail-in ballot were expanded, too. Previously voters could only request mail-in ballots by sending completed request forms via mail, or by appearing in person or calling the county elections office to request one. This year, individuals can also get an absentee ballot by filling out a form and sending it back by email or fax. The state board of elections is also creating an online portal, which voters can use to request ballots and also keep track of their ballot once they mail it back. Voters can find the request forms on their local county election websites or local office. Voters who want to vote by mail must send back request forms by Oct. 27 at 5 p.m.

What happens after you fill out the ballot?

County elections boards will start sending out the absentee ballots in early September. Once a voter fills out the absentee ballot, they must sign it and have their witness sign it as well. Tsujii said those who have a hard time filling out the ballot themselves can ask a family member to fill it out for them. He also said multi-partisan assistance teams appointed by the elections board can go to nursing homes and private homes to help individuals fill out ballots. After the ballot is filled out and signed by the voter and the witness, it needs to be stamped with one Forever stamp, postmarked by Election Day and sent in.

Once the ballots are received by the county elections board, individuals will be able to get updates via the state’s online portal that their ballots were received. Then, they will get scanned and stored. To offset the increased load of absentee ballots, Tsujii and Collicutt both said they have two high-speed scanners in each county to help count and tabulate the results. Both directors said they plan on pre-scanning as many ballots that come in before Election Day as possible, so they don’t get backlogged on Nov. 3. The results of the scanned ballots however, will not be released until the night of the election. The tricky part, Tsujii said, is that as long as the mail-in ballots are postmarked by Election Day, they will get counted even if they arrive after Tuesday. That means that there is a possibility that many absentee ballots will be counted after Election Day which is why the official results won’t be out until Nov. 13 — 10 days after Election Day.

But in order to make sure absentee votes get counted, Tsujii and Collicutt said people should do everything as early as possible, from requesting a ballot to mailing it back in once you get one.

“Be proactive,” Tsujii said. “Don’t want until the last minute. We don’t want voters to run the risk of going through certain hoops with the Post Office to where it doesn’t come into the office in time. We strongly recommend you put in a request today.”

In addition to making requests for ballots, Tsujii said voters should check their registration statuses and be on the lookout for sample ballots which should be posted on county elections websites sometime in August.

And with increased absentee and early voting option, Collicutt said that he thinks that there will be less Election Day voting this year.

“I hope that by the time we get to Election Day, we will have a historically low number of voters,” he said. “I’m going to prepare but what I’m thinking is we won’t have as many voters as years past.”

What about in-person voting?

Despite increased efforts to making absentee voting more accessible, both Tsujii and Collicutt said they are making sure in-person voting is as safe as possible too. A recent emergency order by the state Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell now requires there to be at least one early-voting site for every 20,000 registered voters in each county. In Forsyth and Guilford counties there will be the same number of early voting sites as there were in 2016 but hours will be increased due to Bell’s new order. However, the locations for these sites and the Election Day sites may change because of the pandemic.

“The game plan is to hold on to what we’ve got,” Collicutt said. “We’re going to try to make sure churches don’t say, ‘We don’t want people in our building,’ but if they do, we’ll find replacements for those places.”

The addition of personal-protection measures against the virus will also be seen at in-person sites during both early voting and Election Day voting.

March 3, 2020 primary voting (photo by Carolyn DeBerry)

In Forsyth county, Tsujii said that polling places will have social-distancing stickers on the floors, hygiene tables, masks, gloves and hand-sanitizer for all voters, and disposable styluses and one-time use pens. Collicutt said the same will be done in Guilford County. Masks, gloves and face shields will be worn by all poll workers and masks are strongly encouraged for voters in both counties.

“We cannot turn anyone away because of not wearing a mask but we highly encourage it and we will be providing masks for those that don’t have one,” Collicutt said.

One of the major concerns for Collicutt has been recruiting enough poll volunteers to work the election this year. In years past, many of the volunteers have been older, with the average age being about 60. Because of the coronavirus, Collicutt said he’s had some volunteers say they won’t be able to do it this time around. In Forsyth County, Tsujii said his office has partnered with local sororities and fraternities to recruit younger volunteers. He’s also planning on recruiting teachers and students who are at least 18 years old, because Election Day this year is a teacher workday in Forsyth County.

“The encouraging sign is that we are still having people sign up to be a poll worker,” he said. “Folks are still expressing their interest.”

Tsujii also said he’s working on one more thing to help combat the coronavirus during elections this year and it relates to one of the most recognizable aspects of voting day — the ‘I Voted’ sticker.

“We’re creating digital ‘I voted’ stickers,” he said. “We will still provide the actual stickers but for those that are wary, we’re going to have QR code posters so people can scan and get a digital ‘I voted’ sticker. We’re trying to minimize contact and encourage the use of digital platforms.”

For information about voting in Forsyth county, go here. For Guilford county visit here.

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