For NC election officials, 2020 ballot counting has been business as usual
Posted November 11, 2020 1:19 p.m. EST
Updated November 11, 2020 1:39 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — On Election Day, North Carolina voters insert ballots into the scanners that count votes in every precinct. Voters know their votes are counted when they see their ballot disappear into the machine, and the voter tally goes up by one.
But this year, elections administrators, legislators and news organizations around the state have received calls from concerned and often confused voters who want to make sure their votes counted.
For voters who cast their ballots early at a one-stop location or mail their ballots well in advance of Election Day, that’s typically as easy as looking up their absentee ballot using a statewide voter search tool.
But another tab on that tool says, “Voter History.” And some voters this year have been shocked to see that their voter history doesn’t yet list the November election.
“They don't see where they voted in person on Election Day and I think they're just worried about it," said Rachel Raper, Orange County's election director. "There's just a lot of misinformation swirling around. ... You know, you think about, those are the people who were calling. Who's not calling and instead is believing that misinformation?"
But not seeing an updated voter history is normal.
County election officials do not update that data until after election results are finalized, which is how the process has worked in past elections.
All of which means: If you voted early, there’s a record of it in the public-facing database voters use to look up basic information. If you voted on Election Day, it will be some time before it’s listed there.
“This is the process it's always been,” said Wake County Elections Director Gary Sims, a 21-year veteran of election administration. “There's nothing new this year. There's nothing special.”
GOP pushes for a call
The North Carolina Republican Party and Republican members of the legislature are calling on the State Board of Elections to release voter history data for a different reason.
They want data released so that national news outlets will call the state’s presidential results for Donald Trump, according to a press release the party issued on Monday.
As of Wednesday morning, North Carolina and Georgia were the only states The Associated Press hadn’t called in the race for the White House.
Enough by-mail and provisional ballots are potentially outstanding that it is mathematically possible for Joe Biden to catch up to Trump, who has a 73,000-vote lead in unofficial results as of Wednesday morning. But that outcome is unlikely.
At absolute most, the number of outstanding votes left to be counted stands at about 137,500 ballots as of Wednesday morning, according to reporting by the News & Observer.
But significantly fewer ballots are likely to be returned and counted.
And for Biden to tie Trump, even if every single ballot was returned and counted, the Democratic challenger would need to win 75% of those votes, more than he has earned so far.
The deadline for mail-in ballots postmarked on Election Day to arrive at their county boards is 5 p.m. Thursday. In prior years, the deadline would be three days after Election Day, not nine, but the. State Board of Elections settled a lawsuit to extend the deadline for this year only, taking the pandemic into consideration.
Republican lawmakers have repeatedly cited the lawsuit as a reason for their distrust of the state board, even though Republican members of the board at the time voted in favor of the settlement.
Those members resigned after the state GOP contacted them to criticize their decision, and Republicans appealed the board’s decision to settle the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, twice. The settlement’s extended deadline stayed in effect.
But it’s difficult to know exactly how many by-mail ballots may still be returned. Republicans hope to calculate that answer better – and put a Biden comeback in the state beyond the pale – with the early release of voter history data.
Of about 137,500 ballots that could still be counted in this election, about 92,000 are by-mail ballots that voters requested but elections offices have not yet received. Some portion of those voters likely voted on Election Day instead of using the by-mail option, and Election Day voter history would provide an accounting of that.
Those voters would be ineligible to submit a by-mail ballot, because that would be voting twice, and therefore can be subtracted from the total number of outstanding ballots.
But voter history data was never meant to be used in this way, according to Karen Brinson Bell, director for the N.C. State Board of Elections, and it has never been released before counties finalized their election results.
This year is no different.
Election results are based on the ballots cast, Brinson Bell said. Election workers use voter history for a completely different purpose: maintaining the statewide voter registration lists.
Voter history cannot be completed until after all the ballots are counted in an election, said Derek Bowens, Durham’s election director, because until then, the history would be incomplete.
“The canvass is the process of finalizing the election, so we wouldn't want to finalize voter history before we finalize the actual election,” Bowens said.
By state law, counties meet 10 days after Election Day to make their election results official. That is this Friday. Then, election results can be called with the final tally of votes, no complex calculations or projections needed.
Just like in past elections, the state board will – by law – certify the results three weeks after the election, which this year falls on Nov. 24.
A lack of trust fuels records requests
But there’s a lack of trust between the Republican-majority General Assembly and the Democratic-controlled State Board of Elections, which has three Democratic voting members to the Republicans’ two.
There’s an “information vacuum,” said Pat Ryan, a spokesperson for Senate leader Phil Berger.
However, the information Republicans have asked for is either already public or has never been released at this point in the election process in the past.
Republican leadership, for example, asked for a complete list of every voter who cast a provisional ballot. A provisional ballot is cast when there are questions about a voter’s eligibility and set aside until the questions can be resolved.
Making that list is one of many tasks county election officials have to complete by Friday, and counties have discretion over the order in which they do them, Brinson Bell said.
Election officials have an extensive to-do list that needs to be completed by Friday when they present election data to their boards. They need to:
process by-mail ballots,
contact voters who made mistakes on the ballot-return envelopes,
research provisional ballots,
update voter histories and
audit election results to make sure ballots have been counted properly.
At the same time, county elections officials are completing payroll for the close to 25,000 poll workers and thousands more temporary workers in election offices around the state. This year more than most, they’re also responding to calls from voters confused by misinformation they’ve read online.
“Remember, some of these county offices are one-person shows,” Brinson Bell said.
Republicans say they understand some of the data they are asking for is incomplete. In a press release on Monday, the N.C. GOP called for the state to release partial lists of voter history and accused the state board – without evidence – of “playing games” with the data.
But Brinson Bell said that incomplete and unaudited voter histories may have inaccuracies that could be jarring to an uninformed observer.
“Part of what we do before we release any data is we always try to make sure that what we're putting forward is accurate and couldn't be misconstrued,” Brinson Bell said.
In preparing voter history data, county election officials reconcile multiple lists of voter information. They cross-check the Election Day voter history with early in-person lists and absentee by-mail lists, they compare the electronic voter history to the paper authorization to vote forms, and they check that against the total number of tabulated ballots.
They always find inconsistencies they will need to research.
A printer jam at a polling place, for example, could make it look like voters were checked in multiple times.
That’s exactly what happened at the North Williams precinct in Chatham County on Election Day. Poll workers check voters in on a computer, which then prints an authorization to vote form. If that form does not print, poll workers have to go back and check that voter in again.
Voting twice is a felony, so even these innocent inaccuracies need to be explained when county election officials present their election data to county boards of election on Friday and before that data is released publicly, which the state does in one complete upload of every county’s data.
“It’s not an effort to withhold,” Brinson Bell said. “It’s just simply: It’s not at a place where it would be accurate to release it.”
Possible legislative changes in the works
Still, Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, a Senate Elections committee co-chair, said he wants to change the election system so that major news organizations can call North Carolina’s race for president on election night.
“We ought to, going forward, be able to declare a victor on election night in North Carolina,” Newton said. “We cannot tolerate what’s going on right now.”
Already, though, some national news media outlets call races with large margins on election night. It’s only close races that take a while to call. And media outlets don’t have a common standard of “close,” so they are free to make different calls.
In 2016, when now-Gov. Roy Cooper beat incumbent Pat McCrory, the race was not decided until McCrory conceded in December, and the smaller number of by-mail ballots made them less of a factor than this year.
But the state and county election boards don’t call races, and county procedures for counting and certifying elections are completely independent from the national news organizations that do make those calls.
This year, the State Board of Elections and numerous local, statewide and national media organizations have said for months that North Carolina’s elections may be too close to call until counties make their vote counts official on Nov. 13.
The post-election processes that Newton calls “inefficient” have been in place for years, including years in which Republicans held majorities on boards of elections across the state.
The legislature did change some election laws in 2019 after an investigation by the elections board found widespread absentee ballot harvesting in Bladen County in the 2016 and 2018 elections. Other bipartisan changes in June addressed voting during a pandemic, but the Republican-controlled legislature left post-election administration untouched, just as it has since winning control of both chambers of the General Assembly in 2011. This year, though, there is a key difference.
By-mail voting accounted for 19% of ballots cast, and Biden won 68% of those votes. In the past, by-mail ballots have been 5% – and often less – of ballots cast in North Carolina’s general elections.
By-mail voting strongly favored Democrats around the country this year. Historically in North Carolina, Republicans used by-mail voting at slightly higher rates than Democrats, but that changed after Trump spread misinformation about by-mail voting for months. The president’s comments have led to a national push by Republicans to cast doubt without evidence on the legitimacy of by-mail ballots, especially those that arrive after Election Day.
Newton said he will introduce legislation to require all votes to come in by or on Election Day.. To do that, the legislature would have to move up the deadline for accepting by-mail ballots up to Election Day.
Newton said he’d want this legislation to have bipartisan support, and he doesn’t have details nailed down.
“I’ve got to work with a lot of others to get that done,” he said. As of Wednesday morning, state data show about 3,800 by-mail ballots were returned after Election Day by registered Democrats, about 3,900 by registered Republicans and about 6,000 by unaffiliated voters. Only a portion of those votes have been included in the unofficial results so far, as county boards continue to meet publicly to process the ballots.
Around the country, votes counted after Election Day have delivered Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to Biden, and narrowly put him ahead in Georgia.
After more than two decades in election administration, Sims said the only real difference he’s seen in 2020’s post-Election Day procedures compared to past years is the demand for immediacy. He said it’s a problem fueled both by the news media and by political parties.
But counting every vote, he said, takes time.
“I understand people want it, want that information, and we live in a world of ‘now.’” Sims said. “But some things just take a little bit longer.”
This story was jointly reported and edited by Jordan Wilkie, Kate Martin, Laura Lee and Frank Taylor of Carolina Public Press; Tyler Dukes, Lucille Sherman and Jordan Schrader of The News & Observer; Nick Ochsner of WBTV; Travis Fain and Laura Leslie of WRAL; and Jason deBruyn of WUNC.