The State Board of Elections is planning for the wrong election and potentially endangering voters
Published June 11, 2020
By Andy Jackson
In an April 22 memo to Gov. Roy Cooper and the NC General Assembly, State Board of Elections (SBE) Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell predicted a “30% to 40% voter absentee-by-mail participation rate (compared to a 4% to 5% rate traditionally)” in the general election this November. The SBE and county boards will use their limited resources based on how they expect voters to vote, so it is important that they be as accurate as possible.
So, will 30% to 40% of North Carolina voters vote by mail this year?
All the available data indicates that they will not and the SBE is in danger of misspending millions of dollars on that assumption.
I will examine three pieces of data: polling results on how people plan to vote, how voters are voting in the 11th Congressional District second primary, and absentee ballot requests for this year’s general election compared to the same point in the 2016 general election. All of them indicate that the absentee-by-mail participation rate will be several times less than the 30% to 40% rate Brinson Bell is predicting.
Poll: Few likely voters plan to vote by mail
A May 26-28 Civitas poll of 500 likely North Carolina voters included a question asking how they plan to vote in the general election: by mail, in-person early, or in-person on Election Day. As seen in figure 1, only 14% of respondents said that they plan to vote by mail.
Q17. Which of the following best describes how you plan on voting in the 2020 election in November?
In person on Election Day 40% In person before Election Day 40% By mail 14% Unsure/refused 6%
Figure 1: Results from a Civitas/Harper poll question on how likely voters plan to vote in the 2020 general election. Source: Civitas/Harper poll
The poll also indicates a possible reason why voters intend to vote by mail at a much lower rate than the SBE executive director is predicting: concern over election fraud. A majority of respondents said later in the same survey that they believed a switch to a universal vote-by-mail system (in which almost all voting would be done by mail) in North Carolina would increase the chances of voter fraud (figure 2). Although election fraud is grossly underreported in North Carolina, the highly publicized overturning of the 2018 9th Congressional District election due to alleged absentee ballot fraud has raised awareness of the issue.
Q19. Do you believe a universal vote-by-mail system in North Carolina will increase or decrease the chances of voter fraud, or do you think it doesn't make a difference?
Increase voter fraud 58% Decrease voter fraud 4% No difference 32% Unsure/refused 5%
Figure 2: Results from a Civitas/Harper poll question on universal vote-by-mail and the risk of election fraud. Source: Civitas/Harper poll
Similarly, a poll commissioned by Carolina Partnership for Reform found 11% of respondents saying that they planned to vote by mail.
Voters are choosing to vote in person
Relatively few voters are saying that they will vote by mail. However, it is possible that voters will actually vote by mail even if they say that they will not. So, do we have data on voter behavior indicating how prevalent mail voting will be in this November’s general election? We do and they also indicate that far fewer than 30%-40% of North Carolina voters will vote by mail in the general election.
We can first look at what proportion of voters in the ongoing Republican second primary in the 11th Congressional District are voting by mail. A search of Civitas’ Vote Tracker (using data from the SBE) finds that only 10.4% of voters have voted by mail as of June 10. That proportion will decline as more people vote early in person and decline even more once people vote on the June 23 primary day.
Of course, that is a Republican second primary. Perhaps general election voters will be much more likely to vote by mail. To get an idea of how many voters have requested absentee ballots I reached out to Pat Gannon, the SBE’s public information officer. He reported that absentee ballot requests recorded by the SBE declined from 2,345 by June 1 of 2016 to 937 by June 1 of 2020. He attributed that decline to several possible factors, including disruptions due to the Coronavirus and the SBE not promoting mail balloting due to uncertainty over specifics of pending legislation.
I also reached out to Gerry Cohen, a member of the Wake County Board of Elections, who reported an increase in absentee ballot requests in that county from 1,871 by June 5 of 2016 to 4,270 by June 5 of 2020, an increase of 2.3 times. That rate of increase puts Wake County on pace to have absentee ballots be a little over 10% of all ballots cast, not 30%-40%.
In short, despite all the discussion of mail balloting over the past several weeks, available data does not support Brinson Bell’s belief that 30%-40% of North Carolina voters will vote by mail this year.
Getting the number of mail ballots wrong will led to wasted funds and less safe voting
So why is it a problem if Brinson Bell’s prediction of a third or more of North Carolina voters voting by mail is wrong?
In Brinson Bell’s April 22 memo to the General Assembly and Cooper, she indicated that the SBE and county boards of elections will spend about $27 million in federal grants and state matching funds on costs associated with expanded absentee-by-mail voting (such as increased postage, mail tracking software, and printing of additional absentee-by-mail envelopes) and making in-person voting places safer (such as purchasing protective equipment and sanitation supplies, renting larger facilities as polling stations to accommodate social distancing, and increased cleaning of voting areas). The SBE is in danger of spending too much time, money, and effort on mail voting at the expense of preparations for safer in-person voting.
Probably more than anyone else in the country, North Carolinians know how insecure mail voting can be. Recent reports of mail ballot fraud in other states certainly will not give voters confidence. While absentee-by-mail rates will increase this year, especially after an online absentee ballot request portal is created by the SBE this fall, there is no indication that North Carolinians will vote by mail at anywhere near the level that Brinson Bell is predicting.
The State Board of Elections is planning for the wrong election. If they continue to do so, the November general election will be mismanaged and less safe for voters.