What did we learn from 2020?
North Carolinians — particularly our Black and Latine neighbors — have always faced an evolving array of barriers that prevented them from exercising their freedom to vote. Last century’s literacy tests and poll taxes, used to keep Black and low-resourced voters away from the polls, have evolved into more insidious tactics like complex vote-by-mail procedures, intimidation, and felony disenfranchisement. Read more about the history of voter suppression here.
Each year, Democracy North Carolina and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) work to identify and remove voting barriers. The 2020 Election Protection report documents our work during one of the state’s highest turnout and safest elections on record.
Central to our report is an analysis of over 13,000 phone calls voters made to our statewide voter assistance hotline (888-OUR-VOTE) as well as from thousands of volunteers (also known as “Vote Protectors”), who observed polling places and helped voters during the 2020 elections. Read more about how our elections are administered here.
Our evaluation of voter and volunteer experiences found:
- The complexity of the vote-by-mail process remained a barrier. Voters reported a lack of clarity around requirements in requesting, completing, and returning ballots, in addition to concerns about receiving and sending ballots in time for their votes to be counted.
- Voters found registration requirements burdensome and confusing. Voters had many questions about how to update their registration address. They also expressed confusion about changes to their registration status, including being listed as “inactive”, removed from the voter rolls, and being told they’re not registered to vote when showing up to vote on Election Day, barring them from voting a regular ballot.
- Too many voters reported feeling intimidated, often beyond the limited scope of the legal definition of voter intimidation. From verbal harassment to aggressive electioneering and police presence, some voters reported feeling harassed at or inside the polls.
- The digital divide affected North Carolinians’ access to the ballot. Voters reported a lack of internet and computer access as barriers at various stages of the mail voting and registration processes.
- Voters with disabilities continued to face multiple barriers to voting. Calls from voters with disabilities or callers assisting voters with disabilities revealed concerns around mail voting, registration, and voting site operations, specifically curbside voting.
- Existing problems at the polls persisted in 2020. Hotline calls and volunteer site evaluation reports show prior challenges from earlier elections continued at some voting sites in 2020, including site accessibility, curbside voting implementation, and poll worker training.
Based on our findings, we identified 9 areas of election administration that should be improved to increase access to voting in North Carolina:
- Voting by mail should be improved by eliminating the witness requirement for absentee ballots; allowing voters to fix mistakes on their absentee ballots; offering paid postage on absentee ballots; offering secure drop boxes for returning mail ballots; allowing voters to pick up their absentee ballot from their county boards of elections; allowing voters to request their mail ballot online; allowing voters to “opt-in” to mail voting for all future elections; incorporating a mail ballot tracking process into law; and expanding the window of time when absentee ballots are accepted.
- Early Voting should be improved by requiring weekend voting hours; allowing counties to set flexible Early Voting hours; allowing voters without a permanent residence to register at Early Voting sites; and requiring a minimum number of Early Voting sites to be offered based on population.
- Voter registration should be improved by allowing voters to register or update their registration on Election Day; allowing every eligible voter to register online; implementing automatic voter registration; extending the voter registration deadline; providing more information to the public about registration status; and improving the state’s list maintenance process.
- Poll worker programs should be improved by requiring uniform statewide poll worker training. establishing a standard Poll Worker Code of Conduct; lowering the poll worker minimum age from 18 to 16; allowing poll workers to work outside their county of residence; and setting a minimum hourly wage for poll workers.
- Voter intimidation should be mitigated by updating state law to clearly define voter intimidation; providing voter intimidation training to all poll workers and election officials; Require police officers to complete voter intimidation-specific training; forming an advisory group on voter intimidation; outlawing weapons at voting sites; and creating a statewide, unified system for reporting voter intimidation incidents.
- Voter access and transparency should be improved by developing a statewide, toll-free voter hotline; developing a voter advocate program; designing a centralized online portal for North Carolina voters; releasing a document of reported voter incidents to the public following each election; and soliciting voter feedback.
- Provisional voting should be improved by providing voters who cast a provisional ballot with a contact who can answer questions; allowing voters who cast a provisional ballot to see if the ballot was counted via their online voter record; requiring a mandatory statewide training on provisional ballots for every poll worker and additional training for county boards of elections; and investigating the number of voters who are denied provisional ballots each election.
- Voter accessibility should be improved by developing new systems to ensure that curbside voting is properly marked, attended, and offers a comparable voting experience; expanding and improving the Multipartisan Assistance Team (MAT) program; requiring statewide training for election officials to ensure disabled voters can cast a ballot privately and independently; and making permanent a portal for blind and visually impaired voters into law.
- Other recommendations include ending felony disenfranchisement and extending voting rights to all individuals who are incarcerated; creating new statewide funding sources for elections; standardize transparency across all county boards of elections; and making Election Day a state holiday.
Our report likely shows an undercount of the full scope of issues experienced by North Carolina voters and is skewed toward voters who both had access and knowledge of the hotline and felt empowered to call. While we cannot capture the perspectives of all North Carolinians, we hope our report provides a deeper understanding of the voting experience in 2020. Together, we are building a path forward for a vibrant, inclusive, and participatory democracy that truly is of, by, and for the people.