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North Carolina: What to Do to Make Sure Your Vote Counts in the 2020 Election

What you need to know, including key deadlines, registration, and how to vote by mail.

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North Carolina has historically been considered a swing state, meaning your vote is particularly crucial to the overall election results -- you could make or break a presidential candidate. To make sure you're properly prepared for November 3 (it's gonna sneak up on us), you'll wanna double check deadlines and get your voter registration all set well in advance.

The good news about NC is that the state makes it really easy to cast your ballot -- you can of course hit up the polls IRL on Election Day, but you also have the option to vote early or even request a mail-in ballot if you'd rather avoid the rush at polling places. Here's everything you need to know. 

What’s the deadline to register to vote in North Carolina?

You can register three different ways in North Carolina: in person or at your county board of election, by mail, or online via the DMV's website by October 9. The state doesn't offer same-day registration on Election Day. If you're planning to submit your voter registration application via mail, it must be postmarked at least 25 days before the election (October 9); however, if the postmark is missing or unclear, you can still get your application processed if it's received at least 20 days before Election Day. 

How to register to vote in North Carolina

Before you register to vote, you've gotta make sure you're actually eligible first. Naturally, you must be a citizen of the United States, as well as a resident of North Carolina and the precinct where you live for at least 30 days before November 3. If you are 16 or 17 years-old, you can register but only if you'll hit the 18 milestone by the time you vote.

Now that we've got that out of the way, it's time to actually register. As mentioned, you can do so in person, by mail, or online. The latter is easy enough, and for that reason, highly recommended. You just follow the link and fill out your deets. If you're submitting by mail, you'll complete the application and send it off to your county board of elections office (find yours here). If you're registering IRL, you'll just go straight to your county board of elections office yourself. 

Can I vote early? When does early voting start in North Carolina?

You sure can.

Early voting in North Carolina kicks off 19 days in advance of the actual election and ends three days before, so Thursday, October 15, through Saturday, October 31.

How to vote early in North Carolina

First and foremost, check out the North Carolina State Board of Election's early voting information page to make sure the early voting options work for you. You can vote early in person or, if you want to minimize the time you spend near other people due to the pandemic, you can even drop of a completed absentee ballot that you received in the mail (more on that in a minute). You just have to find an early voting site in your county.

"During early voting, voters may cast a ballot at any early voting site in their county," the NCSBE's site states. "This is different from Election Day when registered voters must vote at their assigned precinct."

Can I vote by mail?

Yep. Unlike some states, North Carolina doesn't require any special circumstances to be eligible to vote absentee via mail. Anyone can score an absentee ballot and avoid the polls -- whether you're out of state or worried about coronavirus. 

How to vote by mail in North Carolina

The first step in requesting a ballot is, obviously, filling out the request form. You can send it by email, fax, mail, or deliver it in person to your county board of elections office or complete the whole process online. The deadline to submit is Tuesday, October 27 at 5pm. Of course, if you're sending your application in the mail, you'll want to get it sent long before that deadline to ensure you have enough time to receive your absentee ballot, fill it out, and return it in time.

The county board of elections office began mailing ballots out September 4, so you can already get yours. Once it arrives, follow the directions and fill out your info in the presence of one witness -- this part's important. You'll then seal your ballot in the return envelope, sign the outside, and have your witness do the same. You (or a near relative/legal guardian) can then return it back to that same county board of elections office. 

Because everything's different in 2020 due to the pandemic, there are several options for how you return the ballot this year: 

  • You can send it via mail to that county board of elections office, but bear in mind it must be postmarked on or before Election Day, and received no later than 5pm on November 6.
  • You can also use a commercial delivery service like DHL, FedEx, or UPS (same deadline applies).
  • Drop it off in person at your county board of elections office by 5pm on November 3.
  • Drop it off in person at an early voting site during the early voting period. Note: This may be the best option because you can vote your absentee ballot from the safety of your home and personally make sure election officials receive it in time to be counted -- there's no worrying about it getting lost in the mail.

How can I make sure my mail-in ballot is counted?

Simply put, make sure you carefully follow the ballot instructions and get it back to the election authority well ahead of the deadline to be safe. Having that witness signature is also an important factor. As always, it's a good idea to avoid ripping or otherwise damaging your voting materials. You don't want your absentee ballot to be discarded on some sort of technicality.  

How can I stay safe while voting in person?

While voting by mail is likely the safest way to participate in this election, there are ways you can reduce the risk of getting COVID-19 if you plan to vote in person at your local polling place. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has issued safety recommendations for voters.

Here's a rundown of what the CDC recommends, per its official election guidance page:

  • Wear a mask. 
  • Keep a distance of at least six feet from others at all times.
  • Wash your hands both before and after leaving your polling location.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol frequently throughout your time inside the polling place, especially after you touch things like door hands, voting machines, and other surfaces that lots of other people touch.
  • If you cough or sneeze, cover them with a tissue or the inside of your elbow. Dispose of the tissues in a lined garbage can, then use that 60% alcohol hand sanitizer again. 
  • Don't try to disinfect the voting machine or equipment yourself because you may end up damaging them with cleaners and disinfectant products. This is where hand sanitizer comes in again. Use it right after you touch the voting equipment, and if you use it before you touch the equipment, make sure your hands have dried first.
  • Try to vote when your polling place isn't as busy. This might involve driving by and checking to see how long the line is.
  • Verify that you're registered to vote before you leave home and make sure you bring any documents you'll need to avoid complications that could result in spending more time inside the polling place. 
  • Bring your own black ink pen for marking your ballot, or your own stylus (just check with a polling place worker before you use it). 
  • If possible, fill out a sample ballot at home that you can use to speed up casting your ballot at the polling location.

Additional North Carolina voting resources: 

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Megan Schaltegger is a staff writer at Thrillist.