Wondering why N.C. hasn’t finalized election results? Here’s the deal

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 11/11/20

North Carolina will probably be the last state in the country to release its final election tallies. By then, its verdict on the presidential election will be a moot point. The once-pivotal swing …

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Wondering why N.C. hasn’t finalized election results? Here’s the deal

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North Carolina will probably be the last state in the country to release its final election tallies. By then, its verdict on the presidential election will be a moot point. The once-pivotal swing state will ultimately make no difference in selecting this country’s next leader; Joe Biden earned more than enough electoral college votes elsewhere in the country to project him as president-elect.

Still, while the presidential race may not be on the line, several key state and local elections hang in the balance as we await final vote tallies. So, what’s the deal? Why don’t we know yet?

As usual, blame COVID-19

It probably comes as little surprise to learn the coronavirus pandemic is (indirectly) to blame for our delay in election results. Anticipating record numbers of absentee-by-mail ballots to be cast by voters wary of traditional Election Day crowds and queues, the North Carolina Board of Elections approved a request back in late summer to extend the deadline by which county boards could receive absentee ballots.

To be clear, the modification did not permit votes to be cast after Election Day on Nov. 3. To ensure the integrity of the voting system, the NCSBE stipulated that mailed-in ballots must have their postmarks verified before they are counted.

Still, the pandemic measure, which extended the deadline to Nov. 12 — six days beyond the limit traditionally imposed by state legislature — met with heavy opposition from Republicans who argued the relaxation in rules would introduce opportunities for abuse and fraud. So began a controversial succession of legal hearings that culminated at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling first made its way before a judge after a Democratic-backed alliance of retired North Carolinians filed a lawsuit in August arguing that NCSBE rules stifled their constitutional right to safely cast a vote. Given the extraordinary circumstances of a global pandemic, and their heightened vulnerability to its contraction, the retirees requested the board receive ballots up to nine days post-election.

A Wake County Superior Court judge, Bryan Collins, issued a settlement approving the group’s demands. All five NCSBE members accepted the amendment, but its two Republican members later resigned in protest.

Collins’ decision was appealed, and two weeks before Election Day, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, after considering the decision, voted 12-3 also in favor of upholding the amendment to election procedure.

“All ballots must still be mailed on or before Election Day,” Judge James A. Wynn Jr. wrote. “The change is simply an extension from three to nine days after Election Day for a timely ballot to be received and counted. That is all.”

The three dissenting judges, J. Harvie Wilkinson, G. Steven Agee and Paul V. Niemeyer, felt differently. They encouraged the plaintiffs, which included the N.C. GOP and President Trump’s campaign, to appeal the decision again.

“We urge the plaintiffs to take this case up to the Supreme Court immediately,” they wrote. “Not tomorrow. Not the next day. Now.”

Nine days later, the nation’s highest court of law sat to consider the case before it, too, chose to uphold the original decision.

But the deadline extension to receive ballots is not by itself the reason we don’t know final results in North Carolina’s state and local elections. Many states, notably Pennsylvania, also extended their deadlines but have still released enough voting data to call most elections. So, what’s the difference here?

Unlike Pennsylvania, NCSBE rules forbid county boards of election to tally mail-in ballots arriving after Election Day until the deadline.

“We won’t start that process until our meeting on (Thursday) the 12th,” said Pandora Paschal, director of the Chatham County board of election. “At that point, we’ll look at the additional absentee ballots that come in postmarked, you know from Election Day — we’ll take a look at them starting at 5 o’clock on the 12th.”

On the following day, Nov. 13, after all valid absentee ballots have been collected, the board will meet again for its canvass meeting.

“So, what will happen there is provisional ballots and absentee ballots that came either on Election Day, or post-Election Day until November 12, will be counted,” said Noah Grant, the election communications specialist at the NCSBE.

Provisional ballots, which are cast when a voter’s eligibility is in question, have not made substantial differences in past election results. Most are discarded after eligibility cannot be verified, and the rest are typically divided between candidates. Chatham has 156 provisional ballots for this election season.

Absentee ballots, on the other hand, have already swung elections this year, including the presidency. Chatham had just 211 outstanding mail-in ballots as of the start of this week, but more could be arriving in the days before Nov. 12. Some state candidates, including incumbent Republican Chatham Commissioner Andy Wilkie (who trailed by 322 votes out of nearly 45,000 cast) and Democrat candidate for U.S. Senate, Cal Cunningham, will be hoping for a statewide surge in mail-in ballots from voters to push them into the lead in their races.

The process for boards of election doesn’t end once all votes are in, though. They must complete an audit process and address any calls for recount.

“The day after election, we randomly selected precincts,” Grant said. “Throughout the state, the board selects precincts from each county where ballots will be used for the audit.”

In Chatham County, the West Siler City and East Williams precincts were selected.

“So, for the audit,” Grant said, “they take certain ballots — not every single ballot; for example, in one precinct it may be the by-mail ballots or one might be the early votes — and then what’s done is just a simple hand-eye count. They’ll take all those ballots, and they will actually look at them and compare that they match up to the election day results and what was reported.”

Once final votes have been tallied, some losing candidates may be entitled to a recount.

According to a press release from the NCSBE, “a demand for recount must be made in writing to the county board of elections by 5 p.m. Monday, November 16.”

In Chatham, current vote disparities suggest only one race will qualify: the Dist. 5 commissioner contest between incumbent Wilkie and challenger Franklin Gomez Flores. The 322-vote difference is well within the 1% maximum required by state law to demand a recount.

But recounts almost never change the results of an election.

“(Ballots) are just counted by the tabulator like they were before,” Grant said. “Really, nothing’s going to change for the most part. All the same ballots go in. And I guess there is the opportunity for machine error, but obviously, that’s not likely … The thing to stress is that it’s not likely at all, especially in a recount where it’s hundreds and hundreds of votes.”

After recounts have been settled, a record of voting data goes to the NCSBE on Nov. 24 where it is reviewed and certified. Only then are election results official.

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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