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On this episode of As the South Votes, Sailor Jones from Democracy North Carolina joins us to talk through a few issues with voting by mail in the state, including challenges for specially situated populations such as people in assisted living facilities.

He also shares some workarounds for a few of these challenges, and provides steps for taking advantage of safe alternatives to cast a ballot this cycle. Even if you're not in North Carolina, the tips and suggestions provided may be helpful in developing your own plans for voting in upcoming elections.

Given the many changes and challenges that have happened this year, it is important to understand the ins and outs of voting by mail and safe alternatives for casting a ballot. With the 2020 general election only 46 days away, voters should not delay in figuring out how and when they are casting their ballots.

Watch our previous episode of As The South Votes on the basics of vote by mail, availability of vote by mail in different states, early voting as an alternative, and the importance of having a vote plan ahead of the 2020 election.

J. Sailor Jones, campaign director at Democracy North Carolina, joins the show to walk through the process of voting by mail in North Carolina and discuss a few challenges certain groups of voters may face this cycle. Jones also helps with tips for minimizing difficulty casting a ballot including requesting a ballot early or voting early in person. For Jones, it's important that voters know they have options and understand the value in investing a little extra time in figuring out how they are casting a ballot.

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Read the full interview below. Transcript has been edited for clarity.

Anoa: Sailor, thank you so much for joining me in this conversation today. Everyone, I am talking with Sailor Jones from Democracy North Carolina. Tell us a little bit about some of your work.

Sailor Jones: Absolutely. And thanks for having us today. I'm here alone in my office during COVID-19 times, so it's really nice to be with you. Democracy North Carolina is a nonpartisan nonprofit that works specifically in North Carolina to build a political system that works for every single voter. As part of that work, we want to build access to the ballot and also make sure when people vote, those votes count. So right now in 2020, we're doing everything from voter education, on how to vote early safely and securely by mail or during early voting or on Election Day, all the way over to recruiting what we call vote protectors or poll monitors to assist voters and to connect them to our nonpartisan toll free voter hotline 888-OUR-VOTE if they have questions or problems at the polls on Election Day and during early voting. So it's a big job. 

There are hundreds of thousands of nonpartisan voter guides behind me to help people fill out their ballots. We're getting new resources all the time to explain the new and changing election rules and laws that are happening in North Carolina to address the pandemic and a lot of the fears that voters have. So it's a big job in 2020 and Democracy North Carolina is here to educate voters along the way.

If people want transparency, accountability, and quick results in the election cycle, people will want to vote in person.

Anoa: Absolutely. Thank you so much for that. One of the things that have come up, because we're in the middle of a pandemic and the middle of an interesting election cycle to say the least, is vote-by-mail, which for most of us in the south involves using absentee ballots, but vote-by-mail has become a really big topic primarily because a lot of our folks aren't really used to the process of requesting the ballots, filling them out, etc. So can you talk to us a little bit about some of what you've been seeing in North Carolina?

Sailor: Absolutely. So as you have mentioned, voting by mail is a hot topic now in terms of voting, in a way it has never been before. In North Carolina, in a typical election year, you'll have 3 or 4 percent of people voting by mail. In North Carolina, the vast majority of people vote in person obviously. And of those, they vote in person and early during our 17 day early voting period, which this year is October 15 through 31. Now we've seen hundreds of thousands of people requesting absentee ballots. Nearly 800,000 as of mid September, which is more than 10 times what it is in normal election years. So what we're seeing as a result of this is our county boards of elections, working very hard to try to get out those ballots. They started mailing them out on September 4th.  Thousands of North Carolinians have already voted. We're the first  state to get out our absentee ballots, the first in the country to vote. And so we're seeing thousands of people already casting their ballots. A lot of people may have requested a ballot by mail just in case, not knowing what COVID-19 was going to look like closer to Election Day. We're still hopeful people will vote in person. If people want transparency, accountability, and quick results in the election cycle, people will want to vote in person. 

But we're seeing a lot of changes in that regard, and also leading up to the absentee voting period. We saw some changes to make things a little bit easier for people to vote-by-mail. We went from two witness [signatures] as a requirement to one for example. So there are some ways that have opened up options for people to vote-by-mail. Also emergency actions and grassroots activism. That means even more options to vote in person during the early voting period safely and securely. So lots of great options for people to vote. And at least at this point, a ton of people are taking advantage of vote-by-mail, as you said,

We're still working hard to hit the grassroots in regions of the state that may not have internet access, and provide them with those traditional forms and ways of being held to vote in this uncertain time.

Anoa: With all this newness on top of so much that we're dealing with whether it is juggling kids online or some kids in some places going back to school, still trying to figure out how we're navigating our own work—and just existing in a pandemic moment… What are some of the questions and concerns you're hearing from voters right now? In North Carolina?

Sailor: Well, you hit the nail on the head. Rent moratoriums have gone by the wayside at this point in September. A lot of college students who had returned to their campuses to go to school are heading back home or to another place, and they have been displaced from where they're registered to vote. So fortunately this year, we have some online options to help people who have been displaced. We have online voter registration for the first time in the state. That came out in March. As a result, we've caught up to our pre-pandemic plummets in voter registration. So now we're ahead of where we were in 2016 in terms of registration, a lot of which is because of online voter registration. We have an online portal where people can, now as of September, request a vote-by-mail ballot online. And all of that information is available at ncvoter.org. People can go online to register to vote, check their registration, and also click into that portal and request their ballot online. So that made things a little bit easier for people, especially as they're sheltering at home juggling puppies, parakeets and parents in this moment of COVID-19. So those online options are helpful for many people in the state. Obviously, there's a huge digital divide in North Carolina still. So we're still working hard to hit the grassroots in regions of the state that may not have internet access, and provide them with those traditional forms and ways of being held to vote in this uncertain time.

Anoa: I just wanted to segue a minute to just an issue that came up, ProPublica had an article late last month about the possibility that residents of senior homes assisted living facilities, folks who are otherwise quarantined and segmented off, could have some issues of being able to cast their ballot, particularly even using absentee ballots voting by mail. Can you just talk to me a little bit about some of the challenges that are coming up right now, in this regard?

Sailor: Well under new absentee rules, it's only the voter, the voter's near relative, and legal guardian of the voter who can normally assist the voter with requesting and returning an absentee ballot. Obviously, that creates challenges in the time of COVID-19. where assisted living facilities, nursing homes, they may be on lockdown. There's also this thing called the MAT team. You may have heard of the Multi-partisan Assistance Teams. These folks can help any voter including voters living in hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities. They can request help from their county's multi-partisan assistance team. These are appointed by the county boards of elections to get help completing a request form. Unfortunately, the MAT teams cannot assist with returning absentee ballots. And that's a big problem because obviously getting those ballots back to the county board of elections is a challenge. Remember, you or I, because we are not in an assisted living community, can return our absentee ballot by mail or we can return it in person. If we want to play it safe, take it back to the county board of elections office or take it back to any early voting site in our county. Not so for someone who is disabled or may not be able to get there in a lockdown facility at this moment. 

The first and most important thing you have to do an absentee by mail ballot is have an attention to detail.

So there are some options for those folks. And that is the MAT team can come in and assist with the request. A legal guardian or relative if they are able to circumvent a lockdown and come in, they are able to satisfy these things. We have MAT teams working outside of assisted living facilities under HHS requirements, and they can help people outside the assisted living facility. But what we're seeing is a lot of people taking advantage of certain loopholes. For example, they're getting their negative to witness their ballot in an assisted living facility, they are using the assisted living facility. Remember, staff at assistant assisted living facilities can't witness your ballot, and they can't be that person who helps you request them. But these communities are printing out request forms and putting them in the common area. These nursing homes are able to sell stamps to the folks in the assisted living community and the MAT team members can do that as well. So you affix that first class stamp. 

And anyone can help someone who is disabled if you couldn't make it, for example, to your closest mailbox. Maybe it's outside on the street like it is in many rural places across the state. Anyone can help you including a neighbor, take it to the closest mail depository to send it back. So there are ways people are working around the rules to make sure that people in assisted living facilities can request their ballots and also get them mailed and sent back to their county board of elections well within time. And the great news is the best part about this is people are taking my advice and your advice and voting early requesting their ballot early, mailing it in early. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources online to help them fill out their ballot. Sample ballots are up on the state board website. nonpartisan voter guides are available behind me right now. So people are already voting, and they're doing so in places and spaces where they're also sheltering. So there are options for them. It's just a little bit more difficult this year with a lot of places on lockdown.

Anoa: Absolutely, thank you for sharing that as well. Sailor, just talk to me a little about why it's important for making sure people really understand what the rules are, and I know we talked before about how it's always changing. So new guidance could come out next week. But staying on top of the best of our ability, how the rules exist, how they may change or what the possible alternatives are to just talk a little about. Why it's important understanding and just taking a little time to do that education.

Sailor: Yeah, I mean, the first thing we tell people you know, there's a three step process for returning your absentee ballot. For example, you got to get the witness to watch you fill out the ballot and sign the envelope, you sign the envelope and you got to seal it. But the first and most important thing you have to do an absentee by mail ballot is have an attention to detail. You know, it's not an easy thing necessarily to follow the rules for something you've never done before. And for the vast majority of North Carolinians. voting by mail is new. So we ask people to just follow the instructions carefully, but most importantly, understand their options and have a little optimism about it. Keep calm, it's going to be OK. And to know, most importantly by voting early or if you are worried about voting by mail or worried about USPS overload you can vote in person safely and securely.  Keep in mind that in person voting options, there's never been more of them. We have double the weekend hours, more Sunday voting than we've ever had. When you go to the polls in person, poll workers will be wearing masks. You'll be encouraged to safely distance.  You won't even be able to use the same pen as someone did before. There are single serving pens this year. So the counties are working incredibly hard to make it safe, whether you choose to vote-by-mail, or in person. And what we're doing as advocates is encouraging you to, whatever you're going to do, do it early. There are ways to fix problems if you need to. 

One more thing I want to say about fixing problems, we sued the state board of elections earlier this year, and we won a lot of things that we wanted, including a cure process. What that means is if you don't sign your ballot or the witness doesn't sign the ballot or something happens wrong, there's still the capability for you to cure certain parts of your ballot that may have otherwise meant it is invalid. And so we're encouraging people to vote early as well. To take advantage of that cure process. Also, there's a new thing called BallotTrax. The State Board of election is providing a way for you to track your ballot in and out of the mail stream this year. You can even get a push to text to let you know when your ballot is going through the mail, and it has arrived. You can get it by voicemail. You can get it anytime you want. You can select on a dashboard, 'I want to know right before bed when my ballot is coming in.' That's when they'll alert you. So there are plenty of ways to use online digital options and safer spaces this year to vote safely, vote securely, and vote with confidence in a year of so much uncertainty. So the options are there, it's just about people looking on ncvoter.org or calling 888-OUR-VOTE our toll free hotline, finding them out. We're waiting for your call. We're waiting for you to go online. The information is there. We hope people will visit.

Multiply your vote the legal way.

Anoa: Absolutely. In closing, thinking about the importance of a vote plan, because you gave us a lot of really good options just now about how to make sure we're casting our absentee ballot. And for folks watching who may not be in North Carolina, definitely check in with your secretary state or county board of elections making sure you know what processes are available for you is super important and critical. But we have so many options, we can vote early in almost all states in the south, we can vote on election day if we choose. We have so many options to avoid the possibility of long lines, I would definitely take advantage of those alternatives. However, just talk to me about the importance of having a vote plan. Thinking about it like OK, if you're going to the store you have your grocery list, you know what you're going to do. Why should we approach voting in a similar organized fashion?

Sailor: Well, making a plan to vote has never been more important. In North Carolina we know very well the danger of waiting until Election Day. Inevitably nine times out of 10 will be having a hurricane during Election Day. And so to avoid bad weather and long lines, people have always used in person early voting to have options and avoid problems. Don't forget during early voting, you can also use same day registration. So if you have problems with registration, you can fix them and vote at the same time. So early voting the 15th through the afternoon of Halloween this year on October 31, you can take advantage of that. But making a plan to vote has never been more important because of the uncertainties of 2020. So we're encouraging people. Did you know that nearly 600,000 North Carolinians were removed from the voter rolls in 2019? If you didn't, you may not be registered to vote. We're encouraging people to check their registration and make sure they're registered. They can do that right now at ncvoter.org

Second, make a plan to vote. Are you nervous about voting in person? Do you have an underlying condition that makes you more susceptible? You can vote curbside this year.

If you have an underlying condition that makes you susceptible to COVID-19. Or you can vote-by-mail, just go ahead and request it and mail it in as soon as you get it back. So make that plan to vote. And if my job is done, if I do it right, only three people will vote on Election Day, your puppy, a parakeet, and maybe one candidate. But hopefully everybody will take advantage of the early voting options they have, either by mail or in person. Last but certainly not least in your plan: How many people can you reach before election day? You have voted early by mail or in person, you make your plan to vote, you check your registration—then pick five, maybe 10 people in your networks, and make sure they know the rules. If you feel comfortable loading them in your car to vote curbside if they have an underlying condition, or another reason they can't go into the voting room. Make sure that any knowledge that you have about how to vote this year, they have it too and multiply your vote by five—the legal way in North Carolina.

Anoa: I like that. Multiply your vote the legal way. And that's right. So apply early y'all. Vote early. Vote only once. You don't have to vote often, you vote once. 

Sailor: Vote once!

Anoa: And bring some friends along with you. Sailor, thank you so much for taking some time to talk with us today. I really appreciate your wisdom and wit.

Sailor: Thank you so much. You need a sense of humor in 2020 voting. So enjoy. And again, please visit ncvoter.org or call 888-OUR-VOTE. Our experts are standing by to help you right now.

Anoa: I love it. Well, this has been another episode of As The South Votes. Thank you for joining us!

Sailor serves as the Campaign Director for Democracy North Carolina. A champion for equality and justice, Sailor hails from rural eastern North Carolina.

Anoa Changa

Anoa is an Atlanta based movement journalist, influenced by grassroots-led electoral organizing efforts. She is the host of the podcast “The Way with Anoa” tackling politics and current events through a Black progressive feminist perspective. She leads electoral justice and voting rights coverage for Prism, a BIPOC led nonprofit news outlet elevating stories, ideas, and solutions from people whose voices are underrepresented in mainstream media.