In North Carolina, nearly 1.2 million voters have requested to vote absentee and, as of October 5, more than 370,000 voters have already returned their mail-in ballots. Overall, 96.7 percent of absentee ballots have been accepted and counted. But for Black voters, an absentee ballot is nearly three times more likely to get rejected as one from a white voter. One outdated policy is largely responsible for the racial bias—the witness rule. 

Most states know that a witness signature is a hurdle for voters but doesn’t provide additional election security. In other words, the requirement costs legitimate voters their vote but doesn’t stop fraud.


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North Carolina is one of just six states that require a witness to sign the outer envelope of an absentee ballot (Alabama, Alaska, Louisiana, Virginia, and Wisconsin are the others. Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Minnesota have all waived their witness requirement for the 2020 election). Most states know that a witness signature is a hurdle for voters but doesn’t provide additional election security. In other words, the requirement costs legitimate voters their vote but doesn’t stop fraud. 

Like most states, North Carolina requires voters to sign their own envelope, a security step that allows election officials to compare the signature on the envelope to a signature on file to verify the voter’s identity. If a voter forgets, their vote won’t be counted unless the voter proves their identity. But the Tar Heel state also requires a witness to sign the envelope. Finding a witness can be a barrier to voting. But even if a voter finds a witness, they still have to get all the details right or their ballot could get tossed. The witness must print their name and address as well as sign, or the voter’s ballot will get rejected. And data show that the witness rule makes it less likely that a Black voter’s absentee vote will be counted. 

To their credit, North Carolina officials have tried to mitigate the anti-voter and racially-biased impact of the witness rule in two ways: first, by reducing the onerous requirement for two witnesses down to just one witness, and second, by implementing a cure process which provides voters a chance to fix issues with their ballot, including witness issues and signature issues. Both these changes are helping more North Carolinians have their voice heard this November. But the Trump re-election campaign filed a lawsuit on September 28 in an attempt to block the new cure process from going into effect. It’s unclear how this lawsuit will play out or how it will affect the counting process.

Data from the North Carolina State Board of Elections, compiled and analyzed by Sightline as of October 5, shows that the state’s processes for verifying and rejecting absentee ballots have a disproportionate impact on Black and Native voters. While just 2.5 percent of absentee ballots cast so far by white voters have been rejected, the rejection rate rises to 6.9 percent for Black voters, and 4.7 percent for Native American voters. 

Black voters have cast 16.5 percent of returned absentee ballots yet make up 34 percent of rejected ballots. White voters have cast 72 percent of absentee ballots but only make up 54 percent of rejected ballots. The process of verifying absentee ballots in North Carolina is effectively diluting Black voices.

North Carolina Absentee Ballots Returned as of 10/5/2020

 Total BallotsAcceptedRejectedRejection RatePending CureCured - AcceptedRejection Rate if Pending Accepted
All Voters370480358192122853.32%727212981%
White26711826043966772.5%33788380.92%
Black610475686041866.86%29793501.4%
If all the pending cure ballots were to be accepted, the number of rejected ballots would fall to 2,487 total ballots; rejected ballots from white voters would fall to 1,588; rejected ballots from Black voters would fall to 666. The rejection rate would fall to 0.88 percent for all voters; 0.79 percent for white voters; 1.42 percent for Black voters.

The witness rule is particularly problematic in getting Black votes counted. Black voters are more likely to get rejected for witness problems than are white voters: in data retrieved on September 22, witness issues accounted for 67 percent of absentee ballot rejections among Black voters compared with 37 percent of rejections among white voters. 

Regardless of the intent of the witness rule, the overall effect of this requirement is to disproportionately disenfranchise Black voters.

Regardless of the intent of the witness rule, the overall effect of this requirement is to disproportionately disenfranchise Black voters.


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Many of those voters are now trying to cure the mistake—to prove their identity and have their vote counted. That is good news—it means those voters still have a chance to be heard. The new cure process is proving to be quite popular: nearly 70 percent of all voters, including fully 71 percent of Black voters whose ballots were rejected are taking advantage of the new cure process. Of the 12,285 rejected ballots, 1,298 ballots have been cured and accepted and 7,272 voters are working through the ballot curing process. North Carolina’s new cure process is helping more legitimate votes get counted by giving voters a chance to prove their identity instead of throwing ballots in the trash permanently. 

If every voter who has started the cure process were successful in getting their absentee ballot counted, that would bring North Carolina’s rejection rate way down—from 3.3 percent to 1.0 percent—and would also reduce the glaring racial disparity. However, a difference would remain: 0.92 percent of ballots from white voters would be rejected compared to 1.4 percent of ballots from Black voters. 

On the other hand, so far white voters have been more successful in getting their ballots cured. Among white voters, 12.6 percent of rejected ballots have been cured and accepted, while among Black voters only 8.4 percent of rejected ballots have been cured and accepted. 

  • Despite its imperfections, North Carolina’s cure process provides Black voters a chance to get their ballots corrected, and moves the state a step closer to equitable access to the right to vote this November. The Trump campaign lawsuit, if successful, would stall North Carolina’s progress and lock the state into continued racial discrimination in absentee ballot rejection rates.

    Sightline will update this analysis as more ballots are returned.

     

    Sightline Institute is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and does not support, endorse, or oppose any candidate or political party.

    Zane Gustafson, research contributor, holds a master of public affairs degree, with a focus in climate policy, from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He also studies foreign affairs, political rhetoric, and American history.

    Hayat Norimine, research contributor, is a freelance writer who grew up in Washington on the border of Idaho. She previously covered city halls and politics for The Dallas Morning News, Seattle Met magazine, and The Daily News in Longview, Washington. She has an MA in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism and a BA in English from the University of Washington. For Sightline, she researches and writes about democracy reform and elections issues and reports on fossil fuel proposals along the Thin Green Line.