NC legislature’s removal of safeguard for absentee ballots disenfranchised hundreds of voters in 2024 primary election

Voting rights advocates call on North Carolina lawmakers to restore the longstanding three-day grace period for absentee ballots in time for this fall’s general election to ensure voters aren’t disenfranchised by delays in mail delivery

RALEIGH – More than 750 North Carolinians who voted absentee by mail in the March 2024 primary election had their ballots thrown out because state legislators took away a longstanding safeguard that had previously helped protect absentee voters from delays in mail delivery.

Voting rights advocates are calling on North Carolina lawmakers to restore the grace period for absentee ballots in time for this fall’s general election.

Background on the lost grace period:

In 2009, the North Carolina legislature voted unanimously to establish a grace period in which absentee ballots postmarked on or before Election Day could be accepted by county boards of elections up to three days after Election Day.

But in 2023, the Republican-controlled legislature voted along party lines to take away the three-day grace period. Now, absentee ballots received after 7:30 p.m. on Election Day cannot be counted. That change leaves voters vulnerable to having their mail-in absentee ballots thrown out because of delays in mail delivery.

“The three-day grace period was a commonsense safeguard for North Carolina voters and was passed with unanimous, bipartisan support in 2009,” said Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina. “The legislature’s decision last year to suddenly dismantle that safeguard hurts voters who rely on voting by mail to access the ballot box.”

The legislature’s removal of the three-day grace period for civilian voters does not speed up finalizing election results, since thousands of provisional ballots can’t be counted until days after the election. It takes time for county boards of elections to review provisional ballots to determine voters’ eligibility. Furthermore, federal law still allows for a nine-day grace period for military and overseas voters casting an absentee ballot. And under law, election results are not finalized at the county level until certification happens 10 days after Election Day.

Voters harmed by loss of grace period:

More than 1,125 North Carolina voters had their absentee ballots thrown out in the March 2024 primary election because their votes arrived after Election Day, according to data from the State Board of Elections. Of those late-arriving ballots, more than 750 could have counted if the three-day grace period was still in place.

For instance, an absentee ballot was thrown out in Iredell County because it arrived the day after Election Day, even though the voter had mailed it on Feb. 22 – two weeks before Election Day.

The removal of the grace period hurt Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated voters. Of the ballots that could have counted if the grace period were in place, 168 were from registered Republicans, 309 from Democrats, and 276 from voters registered unaffiliated. These numbers are generally proportional to the total mail-in ballots requested for each major party.

An even greater number of absentee voters could be disenfranchised by the loss of the grace period in the general election, as the rate of voter participation this fall is expected to be three times higher than it was for the primary.

A call to restore the grace period:

Common Cause North Carolina is calling on state lawmakers to restore the three-day grace period as an important safeguard for voters.

“Voting is our fundamental freedom as North Carolinians. It’s outrageous when a voter follows the rules but has their lawful vote thrown out because of a delay in mail delivery that’s no fault of their own,” Phillips said. “When legislators return to Raleigh for their session in April, they must do the right thing for North Carolina voters and restore the three-day grace period.”

Common Cause NC is a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. We work to create open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity and representation for all; and empower all people to make their voices heard in the political process.

See More: Voting & Elections