I received an email recently that expressed some confusion about the witness requirement for absentee ballots.

The Email

Here is the email (with identifying information redacted):

Your organization seems to me to be the only group that may understand our present 2022 voting rules [Note: there are others who understand the rules, but we will take the compliment] ——-4 pages of absentee voting rules for the “voter”.

NOW THE RULES STATE THAT THE VOTER MUST GET TWO WITNESSES TO WATCH (HELP) THE VOTER FILL OUT HIS/HER BALLOT! Then witness voter’s signature on envelope. A ballot is a private, personal task of ever legal voter.

Please confirm that our” filling-out our ballots” are private and will not be watched by two outsiders!

The witness requirment is an essential protection of our ballots

Before we get to the voter’s question, it is important to note why North Carolina requires witnesses for absentee ballots. The witnesses confirm that it was the voter, and no one else, who marked his or her ballot.

The witness requirement is also an important tool for investigating alleged ballot trafficking (AKA: ballot harvesting) and requiring two witnesses is superior to requiring one for that purpose:

In addition to verifying that the voter made the choices on the ballot, the witness requirement is also crucial in suspected ballot harvesting cases for establishing who took possession of the absentee ballots, since it is invariably the witnesses who take them. Finding the same names on numerous absentee ballot container envelopes was an important signal that ballot harvesting operations were taking place in Bladen County in 2018.

Requiring two signatures is superior to requiring one since it prevents one-person ballot harvesting or vote-buying operations. In addition, it makes ballot harvesters sign as witnesses on more ballots. For example, a 10 person ballot harvesting crew trying to harvest 200 ballots would have to average 40 signatures per worker, something more likely to be noticed by election officials and reporters:

All told, WRAL’s analysis shows that just 20 people witnessed about 400 absentee ballots across Bladen and Robeson counties. That’s about one of every four absentee ballots cast there.

Witnessing multiple absentee ballots isn’t illegal. But it can be a red flag for state elections officials, who are investigating claims that people hired by Dowless took voters’ ballots after signing them as witnesses.

Reducing the witness requirement would allow ballot harvesters to operate with less of a “footprint” per worker, reducing the chance that their operation would be noticed.

Witnesses should not see for whom you voted

As I wrote in my reply to the voter’s email, while witnesses should be close enough to confirm that you marked your ballot, they should not be close enough to see how you marked it. Here is part of my reply:

The witness requirement is to protect your vote; the witnesses confirm that it was you (and not someone else) who completed your ballot.
The “trick” is that the witnesses should see that you are marking your ballot but they should NOT see the actual marks you put on your ballot (for whom you voted). The witnesses can be across the room, see you from outside the room through a doorway, or even watch you through a window. Only after you have completed the ballot and put it in the ballot container envelope should they get close enough to complete and sign the witness section.
Here is what the law (163-231.(a) of the North Carolina General Statutes) states, in part: “The persons in whose presence the ballot is marked shall at all times respect the secrecy of the ballot and the privacy of the absentee voter, unless the voter requests assistance and that person is otherwise authorized by law to give assistance.”
In short, the fact that you marked a ballot must be witnessed but what you put on the ballot is private.
Also, you choose who your witnesses are. They must be at least 18 years old and cannot be a candidate for office. You can be one of the witnesses for your wife and she can be one of your witnesses, so you only need one other adult to be the witness for both of you. It could be a friend or relative.
If someone provides a voter assistance in completing the ballot, that person should complete and sign a different part of the envelope.
I hope this helps.

I also hope this post helps anyone else who may be confused about the witness requirement for absentee ballots in North Carolina.