• There was a massive increase in the number of absentee-by-mail ballots in North Carolina in 2020
  • A mail ballot deadline of nine days after the election created confusion and conflict, and over a thousand ballots were still not counted due to their being “returned after deadline”
  • The State Board of Elections instructed county elections boards to accept illegally delivered ballots, no questions asked

This article is Part Three of a series highlighting the findings from “What Happened In 2020? How 2020 Altered North Carolina Elections and What We Can Do to Fix It,” a new report from the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation. Part One covered several North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) actions that undermined election security. Part Two examined how the SBE and county elections boards suppressed election observers. Part Four will review voting irregularities, post-election audits, and what those audits do not cover.

The 2020 election saw a surge in absentee-by-mail voting. The proportion of mail ballots was over four times greater than in 2016. That increase underscored problems with how mail voting is conducted in North Carolina. Those problems included civilian mail ballots being returned after election day and the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) advising county elections boards to accept illegally transmitted ballots, no questions asked.

Mail Voting Surged in 2020

North Carolina is a “no excuse” absentee mail voting state, meaning that any registered voter can request and mail a ballot. State law also made North Carolina the first state to transmit absentee ballots to voters, sending the first batch out on September 4, 2020.

The ease of voting by mail in North Carolina, combined with fears of the coronavirus, created a surge in absentee voting, growing from four percent of all ballots in 2016 to 18 percent in 2020.

Despite the size of the mail voting surge, North Carolina election officials still managed to overstate the demand for those ballots. SBE Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell stated in an April 22, 2020, memo to the North Carolina General Assembly that they expected “a projected 30% to 40% voter absentee-by-mail participation rate (compared to the normal 4% to 5% rate).”

As seen in the table below, about 68 percent of all mail ballots county boards of elections sent out were returned and counted. The remainder were either spoiled (with the voter receiving another mail ballot or voting another way), not counted because of some deficiency with the ballot, or had no record of ever being returned.

Final status of all North Carolina mail ballots in the 2020 general election

Returned — Counted1,001,59567.9%
Returned — Not Counted15,6261.1%
No Record181,53112.3%

Data source: North Carolina State Board of Elections

Mail Ballots Returned After Election Day

Thirty-one states, including all-mail states like Oregon and Colorado, require election officials to receive absentee ballots on or before election day.

North Carolina is one the minority of states that accept civilian mail ballots after election day. County boards of elections must accept a ballot up to three days after election day if it is postmarked as sent by the deadline. That grace period was extended to nine days in 2020 due to a collusive lawsuit settlement by the SBE.

The dependence on postmarks rather than the date returned to the board of elections created confusion and conflict. The SBE even had to issue guidance to county election boards to “conduct research with the USPS or commercial carrier to determine the date it was in the custody of USPS or the commercial carrier” to deal with unclear or missing postmarks. Mail ballots returned after election day were also at the heart of campaign protests to election boards.

Despite those precautions and the nine-day extended grace period, 1,084 mail ballots were not counted due to being “returned after deadline.” Many were ballots that did not have a postmark or other indicator of when they were sent.

SBE Guidance on Mail Ballots Undermined Elections Security 

The SBE gave guidance to county election boards about mail ballots that undermined election security.

North Carolina law states that completed ballots can be transmitted to county elections boards only by mail or courier service, by the voter, or “by the voter’s near relative or verifiable legal guardian.” That law is designed to help prevent absentee ballot fraud by preventing political operatives from dropping off bundles of ballots at a county board of elections office. To help comply with that law, county boards of elections maintain a log of who delivered absentee ballots to their offices.

SBE Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell effectively nullified that law with her guidance in Numbered Memo 2020-23:

A county board shall not disapprove an absentee ballot solely because it was delivered by someone who was not authorized to possess the ballot.

The memo states that election officials may consider illegal ballot transmission “in conjunction with other evidence” but does not instruct those officials to make any effort to gather that evidence. It did not even request that they contact the voters of those ballots, as election board workers must do when there are problems with their absentee ballot container envelopes. 

Lessons Learned

Since the State Board of Elections is unwilling take the necessary steps to secure mail ballots, it is up to the General Assembly to enact reforms.

The General Assembly should require that mail ballots be received by election day. Such a requirement is the norm in the United States and would reduce confusion about whether ballots were transmitted on time.

Legislators should also require that every ballot be transmitted legally to county elections boards or be made provisional pending a “cure” by verifying that the voter completed and sealed the ballot the board received.