Reprinted with permission from ProPublica
RALEIGH, N.C. — Sandra Cosby is no stranger to the election process — or to voting by mail.
In recent years, she's cast her ballot by mail days before the election. Then, on Election Day, she takes a break from her purchasing job with the school system to help out as a Wake County poll worker, guiding voters at precincts.
So when Cosby, 58, sealed up her mail-in absentee ballot in 2018, she handed the envelope to the letter carrier without any worries.
“I just was so confident it was in, it was counted, it was on time," Cosby said. “I never thought anything different."
But Cosby's ballot was among more than 6,000 rejected in 2018 by North Carolina election officials. A disproportionate number of those rejected voters, like Cosby, were Black.
According to a new analysis of 2018 mail-in absentee ballot data from the State Board of Elections by ProPublica and WRAL News, ballots mailed by Black voters during the midterms were more than twice as likely as those sent in by white voters to be rejected. This disparity — similar to gaps in other states — raises concerns about the equity of ballot counting and whether systemic racism and voter disenfranchisement may be tainting elections.
So far, 2020 shows a similar pattern. As of Sept. 23, the rejection rate for mail-in ballots submitted by Black voters was about 3 percent, nearly three times as high as the rejection rate for white voters, according to data from the state. Although election officials point out that voters still have time to fix errors in these ballots when they're notified, or to vote in person, trends from 2018 suggest that often doesn't happen.
In a year when, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, far more people are likely to vote by mail than ever before, the higher rejection rates of mail-in ballots from Black voters, a key Democratic constituency, could possibly tip the outcome in swing districts or states.
Why Black voters, specifically, saw higher rejection rates in North Carolina during the last general election isn't exactly clear. Local elections directors said they were unaware of the racial disparity, and they pointed out that demographic information on individual voters isn't available when county boards reject or accept ballots.
“There is no intentional malfeasance going on to deny someone their right to vote," said Michael Bitzer, a professor of history and political science at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. “But with the history that North Carolina has of Jim Crow legislation, of poll taxes, of active voter suppression that this state has experienced firsthand for over 100 years, there is some reliable resentment and issues to be raised about this."
Black voters weren't the only affected minority in North Carolina in 2018. Across all minority groups, voters were nearly twice as likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected compared with white voters. But the disparity is particularly stark for Black voters, whose ballots formed 14 percent of the about 104,000 cast by mail in 2018. Black voters' mail-in ballots saw a 14 percent rejection rate, more than twice the 6.3 percent rate of all voters' mail-in ballots statewide and the highest of all racial groups.
In North Carolina, a swing state, Black voters are the largest racial group among Democratic voters, making up 46 percent of party members. Although people can still vote early in person or on Election Day if their mail-in ballots are rejected, data from 2018 shows that 85 percent of those who had mail-in ballots rejected did not vote another way. Almost 1 in 10 Black voters who returned ballots by mail, meanwhile, didn't ultimately have their vote counted by any other method — more than twice the rate for white voters and voters overall.
Historically, voting by mail has made up only a small fraction of ballots cast in North Carolina. That's likely to change this year, as state election officials are predicting that as many as 40 percent of voters will send their ballots through the mail amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Individually, the reasons for rejecting ballots can vary. The forms require valid voter signatures, and witnesses also need to sign and provide their addresses. Overall, some election experts and voting rights advocates say, there may be less of a tradition among Black voters to cast ballots by mail, so they could be more prone to first-time errors.
That explanation, though, doesn't apply to Cosby, a veteran of mail-in voting. State data shows her 2018 ballot was rejected because of a missing voter signature, which she didn't learn until this month when contacted by a reporter.
“I didn't get any kind of communication at all," said Cosby, who can't recall if she signed the ballot before returning. “So that really shocked me, and to find out years later, really upset me. It really upset me."
Election officials say they're hoping new measures put in place this year — required voter notification, streamlined ballot instructions, a pared down witness requirement and a new text alert app for tracking ballots — will help voters navigate the vote-by-mail process and correct any errors before the deadline. But if the disparity holds amid the predicted turnout, it would mean the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters — a disproportionate number of them Black.
“Certainly just the basic statistics should raise eyebrows and concerns for many voters," Bitzer said. “The concern that I have is that voters will look at this and perhaps layer on top of a lack of trust in just basic governmental functions when it comes to the most fundamental participatory activity that an American citizen can have."
Across the State, an Uneven Disparity
The analysis by ProPublica and WRAL News shows 40 percent of rejected ballots were submitted by voters who identify as Black or African American, Indian American or Alaska Native, Asian, two or more races, or “other."
Only 20 percent of the ballots were returned by nonwhite voters in 2018.
In 73 out of 92 counties where Black voters returned at least one mail-in ballot, those ballots were rejected at a higher rate than those returned by white voters.
The disparity holds for rural counties as well as urban ones, in areas dominated by Republican voters and Democratic voters alike. In largely urban Wake County, for example, the rejection rate for ballots cast by Black voters is twice that of ballots cast by white voters.
“Knowing what we do to try to help people — and our board does to try to help people — it's disappointing," said Wake County Elections Director Gary Sims, who reviewed the findings at the request of ProPublica and WRAL News.
Sims said that his staff spends the weeks before the election contacting voters to correct problems with their mail-in ballots before they're rejected outright.
Across counties, both elections administrators and voters were surprised by the disparities in rejection rates.
“It's shocking that after we get all this processed and we look at these statistics after the fact that there are these disparities," said Charlie Collicutt, Guilford County elections director.
Guilford County, the third-most populous county in North Carolina, rejected the largest number of mail-in ballots by Black voters statewide: 177. The rejection rate for Black voters, at 16.5 percent, was three times as high as the rejection rate for white voters, 5.5 percent, putting the county largely in line with the rest of the state.
Vance County rejected more than a quarter of the 110 mail-in ballots returned by Black voters. In contrast, only five ballots out of 102 submitted by white voters were rejected.
“To be honest, we have no knowledge of ethnicity until the state gets all the data and compiles it," said Seneca Nicholson, chairperson of the Vance County Board of Elections. “We don't even look at it from this point of view. We just look to see if they followed all the rules."
If there are problems with a ballot, Nicholson said, the board and election staff try to contact the voter before the election to clear it up.
“We're small, but we're big enough to try to take care of all our voters," she said.
But that's not always easy. Nor is it always successful.
Several residents across the state learned their votes hadn't counted in 2018 only after being contacted by a reporter in recent weeks.
“I'm just finding that out two years later, right now," said 30-year-old Sardavia Williams of Smithfield, whose vote was rejected in 2018 because of incomplete witness information.
Hope Mills voters Cynthia and Willie Blacknall were also missing witness information from their mail-in ballots in 2018.
“I've been voting forever. I never even considered this an issue," Cynthia Blacknall, 73, said.
Cumberland County Elections Director Terri Robertson said the normal practice — provided there's enough time before Election Day — is to alert voters of any problems by mail and provide a new ballot. When ballots arrive with only a few days to spare, she said, election staffers try to reach voters by phone.
Rachel Hill, 52, a Black voter in Aberdeen, Moore County, which rejected about one-third of the 149 mail-in ballots returned by Black voters in 2018, says she was unaware that the ballot she sent in wasn't counted.
“Nobody gave me any notification," Hill said. She plans to vote by mail again in the upcoming election.
The rejection rates of mail ballots were especially high in the northeast corner of the state, bordering Virginia. Those counties have the highest share of Black residents.
That trend didn't escape the notice of Irving Joyner, a professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Law who for years has been active in voting rights advocacy across the state.
“We do note that most of these counties (are) in the eastern part of the state, where there are large populations of African Americans," said Joyner, who reviewed ProPublica and WRAL News' findings. “So that causes concern and leads us to a conclusion that there are some systemic problems that exist."
But Joyner said he's not ready to conclude that “racial animus" is the cause. Historically, he said, Black voters in North Carolina have been hesitant about voting by mail.
“One of the ways that people in the past have experienced this racism is that the ballots have been shuttled aside," Joyner said. “So people want to actually see and place that ballot in the machine and see that number change in order to be satisfied that the ballot is in its proper place and is given the weight that it is supposed to be given."
That lack of familiarity with the method among Black voters, Joyner said, may be a major factor in higher rejection rates.
“I think education or the absence of education is a big part of it — that people just don't understand all of the rules," Joyner said. “And the boards have not really provided that kind of clear explanation and direction."
For county election boards themselves, the process of rejecting or accepting ballots is largely administrative, Bitzer said. Demographic information is essentially divorced from the ballot itself, and elections officials have little discretion under the law.
“They're just checking boxes," Bitzer said.
But if voters are consistently running into hurdles, he said, the disparities in rejection rates show the process needs a hard look — even if it simply illustrates the need for more voter outreach.
Beverly Bowman Dorsey, a Black voter in Cumberland County, always voted in person with her husband at their polling place, where she watched their ballots go through the tabulator. But in September of 2018, Hurricane Florence dumped 13 inches of rain on their home in Spring Lake, just north of Fort Bragg.
“We lost everything," Bowman Dorsey said.
Living with relatives in nearby Laurinburg, she and her husband requested mail-in absentee ballots for the first time. Days before the election, she dropped both envelopes in the mail.
Her husband's vote was counted. Hers was not.
Cumberland County election officials say Bowman Dorsey's envelope was missing the ballot itself, something she didn't know until she was contacted by a reporter almost two years later.
“I don't understand how it wasn't in there," she said.
Although she's planning to cast an absentee ballot again in 2020, she intends to submit it much earlier this year — and track it online using tools provided by the State Board of Elections.
And instead of mailing the ballot itself, she'll hand it in personally to the Board of Elections in Scotland County, where she's now registered.
“I will be diligent," Bowman Dorsey, 62, said. “I'll be walking side by side with whoever's doing the process, because you want your vote to count."
Like Bowman Dorsey, Fayetteville voter Andrea Jones didn't learn her 2018 mail-in ballot had been rejected until this month, when she was contacted by a reporter. State data shows her ballot envelope was missing the voter signature, news she called “very disheartening."
“I've been thinking all this time that my vote actually counted. So how many elections did my vote not count because of something?" Jones, 51, said. “That's a question in my mind right now."
She's planning to vote again by mail, this time with the rest of her family.
“My children are now eligible to vote," Jones said, “so we want to make sure their vote is counted as well."
In Clayton, 72-year-old James Harrison said his 2020 vote will be through the mail too.
His 2018 ballot was rejected after election officials found his envelope was missing his signature. It's one of the few votes Harrison, who reliably casts ballots in both the general election and the Republican primaries, has missed over the past decade.
“You just have to make sure your I's are dotted and your T's are crossed," Harrison said.
How North Carolina Compares
Previous studies of vote-by-mail rejection rates in Florida and Georgia showed similar, but smaller, racial disparities in rejection rates.
In Florida, researchers Daniel Smith and Anna Baringer, working with the ACLU, found that ballots cast by Black voters in 2018 were rejected at more than twice the rate of those sent by white voters, 1.9 percent versus 0.9 percent. The rate of rejection for Hispanic voters was twice as high as that of white voters.
Explaining those disparities can be difficult, said Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida, because “we're not there watching all these 2 to 3 million voters filling out their ballots, filling out their absentee return envelopes, putting them in the mail."
Although poverty and lack of education could provide possible explanations for improperly filled-out ballots, drastic differences in rejection rates between counties suggest that administrative issues are at play.
“One might think if it were solely the responsibility of a voter," Smith said, “that those patterns should be consistent across the 67 counties [in Florida], but they're not racially, ethnically, or by age."
Similarly, in North Carolina, rejection rates vary widely by county.
Rockingham County, which is 33 percent Black by population, had a 37 percent rejection rate for Black ballots and a ten percent rejection rate for white ballots in 2018.
Caswell, a neighboring county, is 37 percent Black by population and had an 8.8 percent rejection rate for Black ballots and a one percent rejection rate for white ballots.
Bitzer's own analysis as of Sept. 21 shows requests for mail-in ballots this year are running 13 times ahead of the number election officials saw in 2016. But just how many of those voters will return is an open question.
“In 2016, it was less than five percent of the ballots cast came by mail. This year, are we talking about a third? Are we talking about 40 percent?" Bitzer said. “That's going to be a significant factor in this year's election that we need to make sure voters properly understand what they're getting themselves into."
Many of these voters will be voting by mail for the first time, increasing the chances of making a mistake.
“The more you get on a bike, the less likely you're going to fall off on it," Smith said. “But when you're riding a bike, you're generally not just learning by yourself, you've got other people to help you. When you're voting by mail for the first time, you might be doing it all by yourself."
State election officials are hoping several changes to the process this year will help.
For one, the law now requires only one witness to sign a mail-in voter's ballot envelope. Previous elections required two, and incomplete witness information made up more than one-quarter of the ballots rejected in 2018.
In response to a lawsuit by the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, a federal judge also ruled that election officials must provide voters with a uniform “cure process" when their mail-in ballots are rejected.
In response to that ruling, the State Board of Elections issued guidance in late August requiring local officials to contact voters to offer a remedy in case of rejection. Although that notification was supposed to happen in previous elections, county officials said the uniform process established by the state will help.
Revised this week in response to a related lawsuit, the state's latest guidance requires county election officials to alert voters within a single business day, and it allows them to fix missing signatures and witness information with a standard certification form.
“Efforts to simplify North Carolina's absentee by-mail process should decrease the likelihood that voters have problems with their ballots," Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said in a statement. “We encourage voters to request and return their ballot at their earliest convenience. This will allow time to correct any deficiencies if they arise."
Another change is more basic: The ballot envelopes and instructions that started rolling out to voters upon request on Sept. 4 no longer feature the dense legalese and bright red legal warnings prominent in older versions.
“They were written not with, I think, an eye toward, 'How do we make this easier on the voter?'" Collicutt, the Guilford County elections director, said. “I don't think it was on purpose, I just think there was a lot of legal information they were trying to shove into a smaller space."
State election officials tapped the Center for Civic Design, a Maryland firm that's retooled mail-in ballot envelopes and instructions in 11 states, for a simplified version its designers hope will walk voters through the process more clearly.
The center's Christopher Patten said the redesign process meant testing versions of the ballot with a broad array of potential voters — like those unfamiliar with the process or others with low vision — and watching them make errors.
“We design to correct those mistakes," Patten said. “What we believe is that if you can design really well for those individuals, it's going to benefit everybody."
Joyner, who works with a broad coalition of groups including the state chapter of the NAACP and Democracy NC that are pushing for more mail-in ballot voting among minority communities, thinks the process changes for 2020 will help.
But he said voters who aren't able to get to the polls or whose health makes them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 don't have much of a choice.
“So we are going to use it," Joyner said. “We are not going to leave any votes in the house or on the bed when they can be placed in the mail."
In Wake County, Sandra Cosby plans to work the polls again in 2020. And despite the problem in 2018 — the only general election in decades where her vote went uncounted — she plans to vote by mail again, submitting her ballot well before Election Day.
During her lunch break on a rainy September afternoon, her ballot envelope was already in hand, signed, sealed and complete with witness information. If voters choose a similar route, she says, they should double-check both the ballot and the envelope before mailing.
No one's vote, she said, deserves to go uncounted.
“It can happen to anybody. With me working there, it happened to me. It can happen to you," she said. “Just be mindful to pay attention to what's going on."