Election officials here are gearing up to mail out more than 24,000 absentee ballots today and while the number is unprecedented, the elections director says he's confident his office can handle the load when all those ballots come back.
Today's mailing is only the first of many: Voters have until Oct. 27 to request an absentee ballot, so there's no telling how many absentee votes will be cast in this election, held in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Election Day is Nov. 3. Early in-person voting starts Oct. 15.
Compared with 2016, the county has received six times as many requests for absentee ballots this far out from the election.
Tim Tsujii, the elections director here, said absentee voters can do his office a favor by returning their ballots sooner during the election cycle. Absentee votes received by 5 p.m. on Nov. 6 will be counted as long as they were postmarked by Election Day.
"I strongly encourage voters that wish to vote absentee by mail to go ahead and make their request sooner rather than later, and cast their ballot sooner rather than later," Tsujii said. "That is to make sure it is received and properly handled for their vote to count on Election Day."
Voters don't have to provide any particular reason for voting by mail. All a voter has to do is call or visit the board of elections office in the Forsyth County Government Center, or even easier, apply online or download the form.
There are a few things to keep in mind:
* A voter has to mark the ballot in the presence of a witness. Because of the need for social distancing, the witness can observe through a window or the other side of a room. Voter and witness can use separate pens and use gloves and hand sanitizer for extra safety, officials say.
* In addition to mailing in an absentee ballot, people can drop them off at an early voting site between Oct. 15 and Oct. 31. To make that easy, people returning their ballots that way won't have to wait in the same line as people voting that day. Election workers will post signs at the polling place. Only a voter or a close relative can return a ballot this way. And workers will be getting the signatures of the person bringing in the ballot.
* Make sure your ballot is postmarked, if returning by mail. That's especially true for ballots that might arrive at the elections office during that three-day window after Election Day.
Fortunately for election workers — and campaigns wondering if their candidate won or lost — the elections office doesn't have to wait until Election Day to open all of those absentee ballot envelopes that are mailed back in.
Starting five weeks out from the election — that's Sept. 29, this year — the county's five-member election board will start meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays to process absentee ballots.
The ballots will be removed from their envelopes and run through a scanner, but the totals won't be added up or released in advance of the polls closing on Election Day, Tsujii said.
Those twice-weekly meetings continue right on up to Election Day, which has a 2 p.m. meeting to process any remaining absentees that have come in by then.
With such as large number of absentee requests, Tsujii said, it is possible that the elections board may not finish the last pile of absentee ballots during that meeting. If that happens, he said, the board can schedule more meetings in the days following the election.
The high number of absentee ballots is not the only thing new this year: Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Tsujii and his workers have laid in plans for extensive sanitizing and other measures to keep people safe while voting.
For instance: the pens that voters use to mark a ballot will get only one use per voter this year. Sneeze guards — plastic barriers — will separate workers at the check-in table from the voters. Each voting booth will get wiped down in between voters.
Tsujii said voters will be encouraged to wear masks but that election workers can't force voters to do so. They will have extra masks on hand to give anyone who needs one, he said.
Tsujii acknowledged that all the preparations sometimes make him wake up in the middle of the night.
"I will wake up thinking of another idea," he said. "It is on my mind continually. Our goal is to make sure we can administer the election effectively and fairly."
Tsujii said the office here has learned from the experience of other election workers in other jurisdictions.
"I feel confident and optimistic," he said. "Yes, the pandemic has occurred within a year's time frame, but we have had the time since March to plan and prepare."
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday that people who vote early by mail should show up at their local polling places on Election Day and vote again if their ballots haven't been counted, a suggestion that experts said would lead to chaos, long lines and more work for election officials during a public health crisis.
In a series of tweets, Trump encouraged voters to go to their polling site to "see whether or not your Mail In Vote has been Tabulated (Counted). If it has you will not be able to Vote & the Mail In System worked properly."
Election officials warned that a flood of voters showing up on Nov. 3 to check the status of their ballots would mean even more disruption during the coronavirus outbreak and lengthy waits. Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said it also could undermine public health efforts.
The board "strongly discourages" people from following the president's guidance, Brinson Bell said in a statement. "That is not necessary, and it would lead to longer lines and the possibility of spreading COVID-19."
Tim Tsujii, the elections director in Forsyth County, said that when absentee ballots are sent back in by the voter a bar code on the envelope allows election workers to check off that person as having cast a ballot.
That information is relayed to the polling place on election day, so someone showing up to vote would be told they had already voted, Tsujii said. If someone voted before elections office had received back the absentee ballot, he said, the ballot when it arrived would not be counted because records would show the voter cast a ballot on election day.
In North Carolina, people can check their voter record using a voter search tool on the state elections website. The record will show whether their ballot has been accepted.
In the next few days, the state will offer a service called BallotTrax, which will allow voters to track their ballot through the mail and confirm receipt. People can also call their local elections board.
After months of claiming without proof that there would be widespread voter fraud in November, Trump on Wednesday seemed to urge absentee voters to go to their polling place on Election Day to see if they could vote again, as a way to test the nation's voting system.
The remarks drew widespread alarm from various officials and voting rights groups, saying that if voters were somehow able to cast a second ballot, they could face prosecution for voting twice.
Karen Hobart Flynn, president of Common Cause, said: "You cannot test election integrity rules by breaking them, any more than you can rob a bank to make sure your money is safe."
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany blamed the media for taking Trump's words out of context. She said the president said mail-in voters should go to the polls to make sure their votes got tabulated, and if they weren't, they should vote in person.
"The president does not condone unlawful voting," McEnany said.
Trump's tweets on Thursday appeared to be an effort to clarify the earlier remarks. But they continued to cause concern for election officials who would have to deal with voters showing up at polling places on Election Day to demand information on their absentee ballots.
"His statements are intended to promote widescale chaos and confusion, and would burden election officials who would be tasked with spoiling any absentee ballots cast by voters who heed his call and also vote in person," said Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Paula McCoy, seeking to run as an unaffiliated candidate for Winston-Salem City Council, filed a lawsuit Thursday morning that aims to overturn a decision by Forsyth County election officials that disqualified her bid to appear on the Nov. 3 ballot.
McCoy filed her lawsuit at 9:30 Thursday morning and spent the day wondering if she could get her request for a preliminary injunction heard by a judge before absentee ballots are distributed starting today.
McCoy is suing both the Forsyth County Board of Elections and its director, Tim Tsujii.
In essence, McCoy is asking the court to issue an injunction that would restore the standing she gained in July to be an unaffiliated candidate for Northeast Ward, but lost in August when election officials said she had not gained enough signatures from voters in her ward to run.
McCoy said late Thursday that if a judge does not issue an injunction before absentee ballots are distributed, she would continue to press her claims.
“If a judge doesn’t pick it up before the ballots come out, our hope is that the ballots could get re-sent,” McCoy said. And if she doesn’t get back on the ballot, she said, she plans to run as a write-in candidate for Northeast Ward.
If McCoy fails in her quest to get onto the ballot, Democrat Barbara Hanes Burke will be the only candidate on the ballot for the Northeast Ward seat.
Election officials had told McCoy in early July that she had gained 283 valid voter signatures — two more than the minimum number needed for Northeast Ward — and would therefore appear on the ballot as an unaffiliated candidate.
On Aug. 5, minutes before the deadline expired to submit voter signatures, Burke showed up at the local elections office and questioned the validity of four of the signatures McCoy had gathered.
Elections officials checked and determined that three of the four voters were not residents of the ward, and that dropped McCoy's total to one fewer than the number she needed to run.
Election officials did more checking and discovered they had inadvertently misapplied the software used to check registration. When the dust settled on all the rechecking, McCoy had 265 valid signatures, 16 fewer than the 281 she needed.
Two other would-be unaffiliated candidates, Tony Burton and Michael Banner, were also found to have insufficient signatures to run in East Ward.
In her lawsuit, McCoy says that because she had been certified in July to appear on the ballot, Burke’s challenge should have followed procedures for challenging a candidate that include conducting a formal hearing.
By failing to do so, McCoy argues, the elections board and Tsujii violated her rights.
A Forsyth County judge will determine whether the former head football coach at Winston-Salem State University will get his job back.
WSSU officials fired Kienus Boulware in April 2019 over how he handled a fight between two football players earlier that month. They argued that Boulware knew a gun and illegal drugs might have been involved and that he failed in his duty to contact WSSU police. Boulware, who had been head coach for five seasons, appealed, but the decision was upheld by the university's board of trustees.
For more than three hours on Thursday, Judge Richard Gottlieb of Forsyth Superior Court heard arguments from Boulware's attorneys and an attorney representing the university. He didn't make a decision after the hearing but said he would issue a ruling at a later date. It will be at least a week before he makes a ruling.
Based on court records and arguments at Thursday's hearing, it's clear there was a lot in dispute but it boils down to essentially what did Boulware know, when did he know it and what did he do when he knew.
Here's what seems to be undisputed — on April 4, 2019, after football practice, two players got into a fight in the locker room. Boulware diffused the altercation, but Boulware soon got word that the two players were still trying to fight but this time at Gleason-Hairston-Terrace Residence Hall.
At some point on his way to the dorm, Boulware was told that there might be a gun. This is where Boulware and the university depart ways in how they see the situation.
Boulware testified at a faculty grievance hearing that he didn't believe there was a gun in the dorm room on April 4, 2019. He said he believed there might have been a gun in the past but not on that day and that's why he didn't feel the need to involve the police. He and Robert Massey, who is now interim head coach but was an assistant coach at the time, didn't search the room for a gun. A gun was never found. According to court documents, Boulware and Massey asked the people in the room if there was a gun, and the response was no.
Ali Tomberlin, one of the attorneys representing Boulware, said Massey left the room to go to the office. And Boulware, she said, was the only person who reported the incident to WSSU officials — he talked to an assistant athletic director and he talked to an official with the Office of Student Conduct. Tomberlin said Boulware told the official with the Office of Student Conduct about a potential gun and that person didn't immediately contact WSSU police either. Instead, Tomberlin said, the official contacted a staff member in her office in an effort to mediate the situation.
Tomberlin and Jones Byrd, also an attorney for Boulware, argue in court documents and at the hearing that WSSU violated Boulware's due process rights for his appeal because Chancellor Elwood Robinson was able to review his decision to fire Boulware and to put in additional findings of fact before the issue went to the school's board of trustees.
Kari Johnson, an attorney with the N.C. Department of Justice representing the UNC Board of Governors and the WSSU Board of Trustees, denied those allegations in court and in her written response and said that Tomberlin and Byrd agreed to the appeals process. Tomberlin and Byrd argued that they were coerced into doing so, believing there was a possibility that Boulware might lose his right to appeal his termination.
Johnson argued in court that Boulware gave conflicting statements about whether he believed a gun was involved, and regardless, he was under obligation to report immediately to WSSU police.
The hearing also involved a dispute over the meaning of the federal Clery Act, which requires all schools participating in federal aid programs to track and release information about crimes that occur on or near campus. Reports of violations of weapons and drug laws are among the categories that are supposed to be tracked.
Tomberlin said there's nothing in the Clery Act that required Boulware to report anything, and his training on the Clery Act provided him with five different offices at the school that he could report incidents, including the Office of Student Conduct. The Clery Act, she said, applies to institutions such as WSSU and not to employees and the only enforcing agent is the U.S. Department of Education.
In other words, WSSU had no right to use the Clery Act to justify terminating Boulware, according to Tomberlin and Byrd.
Johnson argued, however, that Boulware was designated as a Campus Security Authority, and that his duty was to report crimes or potential crimes immediately to WSSU police. Because he failed to do that, she said, he had to be fired.
"He heard about the potential of a gun in the context of an altercation," she said. "You don't wait six hours (to report)."