In recent weeks, the Guilford County Board of Elections has turned into the Guilford County Board of Ejections.
County voters may think they’re being conscientious by getting an absentee ballot and voting, but an ongoing series of Board of Elections meetings is making it crystal clear that doing it that way has its risks: If voters aren’t careful when filling out their ballot and the associated form, those ballots may be rejected and all the votes on them null and void.
In the series of meetings leading up to and after the Tuesday, Nov. 8 election, the Guilford County Board of Elections has been combing through absentee ballots and tossing out those that, for one or more reasons, are ruled to be unacceptable by the board based on state law. At times, as the board members examine the minutia related to each ballot, it looked as though the board was counting chads in Florida in 2000 – and, unfortunately, for a growing number of voters, those ballots were rejected.
As of Friday, Oct. 21, the Board of Elections had “disapproved” 169 absentee ballots from county voters. That’s out of a total of 2,681 absentee ballots received up to that point. It means the rejection rate for absentee ballots is just over 6 percent.
So far, Guilford County has mailed out 8,730 absentee ballots at the request of voters. That can be a convenient way to vote but, as was evident at the Tuesday, Oct. 18 Board of Elections meeting – and similar meetings of that board taking place this month and next – there are a whole lot of things that can go wrong when attempting to vote in that manner.
The voter may fail to sign the ballot. They may sign it but not include a necessary address. The ballot or accompanying form may be illegible. The voter may only have one witness rather than the required two, or one or more of those witnesses may have failed to include their address on the form. There are plenty of other disqualifying mistakes as well.
Before each vote-vetting meeting leading up to the election, county elections staff goes through the ballots and finds the ones with issues, and then sorts those into different categories – such as those with no voter signature or those where there’s no witnesses.
Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said that his elections staff attempts to contact the voters and let them know that their ballot was rejected.
At the Oct. 18 meeting, there was one clear indication that a lot of votes had been tossed out over the years – the highly worn ink stamp used to mark each disapproved vote.
“We’re going to need a new stamp,” one election official said. “This one is getting old.”
Guilford County Elections Administrator Sherrie Brewer, who brings in the stacks of ballots for the board to rule on, told the board members that she causes a scene every time she handles that task.
“They laugh at me downstairs because I take my files out on the floor and put them in piles,” Brewer said. “They laugh until I tell them what it is, and then they say, ‘Oh no.’ I don’t know what we can do because it’s in the instructions and it’s in red.”
Brewer also often has the unfortunate job of calling voters and telling them that their vote didn’t count.
“I got yelled at quite a bit,” Brewer said.
At the Board of Elections meeting, in each case there was unanimous agreement among the three-member bipartisan board made up of two Republicans – Don Wendelken and Chairman Kathryn Lindley – and one Democrat, Jim Kimel.
In one instance, a husband and wife pair of voters signed the wrong forms; he signed where she should have, and vice versa. The ballots were from the same address and the Elections Board decided that the two just “made a mistake,” but their intent was clear and a motion to approve those two ballots passed.
The staff can often guess what the board will do based on criteria the board has previously given staff. It was evident that neither board members nor election staff enjoys tossing out votes.
“That’s so sad,” Lindley said after one batch of ballots was rejected. “They spend all that time getting it, signing it; they pay to send it back and they don’t complete it.”
At another point, Wendelken made a motion to disapprove a batch of votes, and Kimel replied, “Sadly, second that.”
One stack consisted of 21 ballots that had no witnesses at all.
Lindley asked how people can sign that they witnessed a signature when there was no signature to witness.
“That’s crazy to me,” the chairman said.
The other board members nodded agreement. Brewer suggested that someone likely handed the ballot to them and said, “I need you to sign this.”
Collicutt theorized that the witness might not realize they’re witnessing the signature.
“They think they are witnessing one act of it, but just not the entire process,” he said.
Nine ballots had only one witness and the board unanimously rejected those, and 13 had no witness address. Those were also nixed.
At this meeting, about 70 ballots were disapproved.
Collicutt explained later, “The ballots will be disapproved so staff can contact those voters and say, ‘Hey, your ballot will be disapproved.’ If that happens, you can get them to issue another ballot that will go out in today’s mail. You can do early voting or you can vote on Election Day. Sometimes staff deals with upset voters that are not happy. Now, because of the volume, we’re not going to be calling them – we’ll just be sending them a form letter.”
Collicutt said staff wished they could call everyone, but as more absentee ballots come in and it gets closer to the election that becomes more difficult to do.
“I presented to the board that making those phone calls has been way too cumbersome on my staff,” Collicutt said. “The [phone] number is not always on the forms.”
He said that they would try to find people’s numbers, and it just became too time consuming.
“And, nowadays, people don’t even answer the phone, so you don’t know if you are even leaving messages for the right people,” he said.
Collicutt said that the form letter sent out instructs the absentee voter to call the elections office.
He said that, these days, any voter can get an absentee ballot for any reason.
“You used to have to have a reason but you don’t anymore,” he said.
He also said that the board is required to hold these meetings.
“These meetings specified by statues outside of the regular meetings,” Collicutt said. “This is a statutorily required meeting.”
At the Oct. 18 meeting, the board also decided to send a list of names of rejected ballots to the chair of each party.
The board also verified the transfer of votes from ballots that had been emailed or faxed into the elections office. Those votes are transferred to a paper ballot that can be read by the election department’s tabulating machines. Since that transfer of votes to the official ballots is done by staff, the Board of Elections goes painstakingly, vote-by-vote, comparing the forms faxed or emailed in with the official ballots submitted, to make sure each vote was transferred correctly to the final ballots.
While the board went through those stacks of ballots, Collicutt explained, “Military and oversees can email or fax a scanned copy of their ballot back. So they are 8 by 11 [inches], and they won’t read back into our tabulator. So a team of bipartisan staff members will duplicate that onto a real ballot and then this board verifies that our staff did it right. That way, we can just read them through the tabulator like other ballots.”
When asked if he knew which of his staff were registered Democrats and Republicans, Collicutt responded, “I know, of everyone in the county, if they are a registered Democrat or Republican.”
He said that information comes in handy when it comes to assembling elections staff teams to handle some tasks that are part of the process.
“The law requires me to use bipartisan teams for certain things,” he said.
The absentee ballots can be confusing in places. For instance, the form asks for a witness’ signature and address, but, unlike most forms, it doesn’t ask for the witness to print his or her name. In some cases, a person’s signature is completely illegible.
When this was pointed out to Collicutt, he wrote in an email, “True, it would be easier to identify the witness [if they were required to print their names], but we can usually do it if necessary through address and whatever we can make out.”
Collicutt also pointed out that the state statute does not require a printed name: “The statute states that the witnesses ‘sign the application and certificate as witnesses and to indicate those persons’ addresses.’ That’s all that is required, even if we cannot read it. We would not take those to the [Board of Elections] just because of illegibleness.”