As long-distance North Carolinians begin to request and return their absentee ballots for upcoming primary elections, they’re encountering the changes brought about by the state’s new voting law— changes that are perhaps most visible in the design of the envelope used to turn in their ballot.
Ayan Chatterjee, a medical student now living in Boston, is a resident of Chatham County who said he has been absentee voting for about ten years, but the ballot materials sent to him this year were different. He said the most notable change was on the return envelope, which included labels that visibly stated his party affiliation.
Chatterjee said the brown manila envelope he received in previous years had a large flap that covered the information about his party identification. The white envelope he received this year had no such coverage.
“I’m from a rural town in North Carolina, and they say there’s always equal makeup of each party on the county boards, but there are a lot of people who handle the envelope before the precinct,” Chatterjee said. “It makes me uncomfortable to know that it’s obviously a ballot, and I just don’t feel comfortable having that envelope have my party affiliation.”
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Changes to the absentee voting process were signed into law in August 2013. Voters must now request a ballot on the State Absentee Ballot Request Form and are required to complete their ballot in the presence of two witnesses or have the ballot notarized. Previously, only one witness was required.
Each county produces its own envelopes using a standard template mandated by the State Board of Elections. This year, that standard envelope includes requirements for more information, such as the signature of an extra witness, a space for a notary official to sign, and a statement warning that fraudulently filling out the ballot is a felony.
It is up to the individual counties to decide to use a double envelope or a flap to hide information, such as party identification, from the people who handle the ballot before it reaches the county board of elections.
Chatham and Guilford counties were among just a few counties that had used an envelope with a flap in previous years but were forced to use a regular envelope this year due to time constraints and new design requirements.
Charlie Collicutt, director of elections for Guilford County, said because of the added information, the county had to redesign its envelope
“Our board has traditionally liked the flap. It covers stuff up that people might be sensitive about,” he said. “We have spent a little bit more per envelope because we believed that was important, but in this case because of the time constraints with getting the new language on the envelope and with the vendor failing to deliver on a certain date, it wasn’t possible.”
Dawn Stumpf, director of the Chatham County Board of Elections, agreed.
“I’m sure that concerns people and it concerns us, but there’s not a whole lot we can do about that, especially because party is public record. Everything that appears on the envelope is public record,” Stumpf said. “It was either have this big envelope that’s going to cost the voter more or we use an envelope without the flap.”
Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, thinks that an outward label with party identification may be unneccessary altogether.
“There’s a bar code that is what they really use to determine which kind of ballot it is,” Hall said. “It’s really not needed. I think it would be better for the integrity of the election system not to have that party printed on the envelope for all the voters.”
Voters have until April 29 to request absentee ballots by mail and until May 6 at 5 p.m. to return them completed.