You voted. So what happened to your ballot afterward?

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 11/4/20

When polls closed Tuesday night in every precinct around the country, it marked the end to a historic voting season — but the election process is far from over.

Widespread concerns about voter …

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You voted. So what happened to your ballot afterward?

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Posted

When polls closed Tuesday night in every precinct around the country, it marked the end to a historic voting season — but the election process is far from over.

Widespread concerns about voter fraud and insecurity over the voting process have cast a pall over the integrity of this year’s election. To investigate the legitimacy of voter fears that ballot counting procedures may permit fraudulence, the News + Record spoke with members of Chatham County’s Board of Elections to learn how your votes make their way from mail-in ballot or poll booth to helping to elect the next president.

Election Day was just the start

Early voting closed last Saturday with record numbers nationwide. Already, by then, more than 4.5 million North Carolina voters had cast their ballots, exceeding 95% of the state’s total vote in 2016. Chatham contributed more than 43,000 votes to the tally, accounting for nearly 75% of all registered voters in the county. And Election Day was expected to boost that number significantly.

But official results cannot be certified until at least Nov. 13, and it will likely be later than that. So, what really happens between the start of voting season and the announcement of the country’s next president? How are millions of votes compiled, verified and tabulated to establish winners?

Here’s a run through the calendar, starting in Chatham County.

Saturday, Oct. 31

On the final day of early voting, an electronic machine at each of Chatham County’s six early voting sites processes the day’s paper ballots and prepares them to be added to the county’s running total.

“The machines look like an old electric typewriter,” said Frank Dunphy, the BOE’s most junior member. “It’s about the size of a scanner, maybe two scanners put together. It sits on top of a table, and when you vote, you mark your paper ballot and then you feed your paper ballot into this machine.”

A chief judge at each location and his or her assistants preside over the machines’ transferal from voting site to the BOE’s office in Pittsboro.

“They have legal powers to enforce law in that space,” Dunphy said. “I didn’t realize this, but if you go in there and create trouble, they can get you arrested — just like a judge in a courtroom.”

To prevent tampering, the judge closes the machine and covers it with a seal. To ensure absolute integrity, at least one assistant judge must watch the process.

“Then, they pick up that machine, they put it in the car, and they drive it to the board of elections office,” Dunphy said. “This is happening Saturday afternoon after 3 p.m. to six machines, six automobiles from six separate sites in the county — they’re hand-delivered to the board of elections office. And that’s all your early voting.”

But what about remote interference? Can hackers and other malcontents access the voting machines and obfuscate the data?

Impossible, Dunphy said.

“None of them are connected to the internet,” he said. “They’re electronic, but they’ve got a little chip inside with all the tabulated votes for the candidates. So, they can’t be tampered with by some Chinaman, or Russian, or Romanian — some high-tech expert in some foreign country. They’re totally separate from the internet.”

Once the six early voter site machines arrive at the BOE’s office, board members and Steve Simos, the deputy director of elections for the county, preside over the movement from each car to a secure room where the machines are locked away.

Meanwhile, board of elections members are already working with additional machines stationed in their office.

“We’ve been meeting twice a week,” said Mark Barosso, another board member. “We put the (mail-in) absentee ballots in the tabulator — we open up the envelopes and put them in there. We’ve been doing anywhere from 800 to 1,200 a meeting. And then we have the military and overseas ballots that we have to transcribe.”

There are, in fact, three tabulators used for this purpose.

“So, now we’re talking about nine machines,” Dunphy said, “aggregated together in the building where they will be locked away with all the votes made through Saturday afternoon.”

Tuesday, Nov. 3 — Election Day

Midway through Election Day, the BOE meets again to finalize early voting compilation.

“So, voting is happening and all kinds of activity is going on — all the precincts are busy,” Dunphy said, “Well, at 2 p.m. we have another meeting, the board of elections. So, I’m going down there, the other four members go there, and this is what happens: the six machines that were locked up Saturday evening, we take them out, and we get a thumb drive.”

At this point, Dunphy emphasizes, all board members must watch the process together.

“We all stand there looking at this thumb drive,” he said. “We take the thumb drive out of machine one, and we put it into two, three, four, five and machine six. So, there are all your early voting numbers.”

The thumb drive, loaded with voting data from each of the six machines, is then plugged into a separate device to compile ballot figures. When it finishes, early votes are officially accounted for.

“We’re all sitting there watching — watching it happen,” Dunphy, a Republican, said. “Liberals and conservatives sitting in the same room watching and making sure everything’s good.”

Election Night

The polls close at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday night and the ballot-processing operation proceeds much like it had on the previous Saturday, but three times more involved — there are 18 Election Day voting precincts across Chatham County, compared to six early voting sites.

“Once the polls close,” said Pandora Paschal, director of the board of elections, “the chief judge brings back the machine with the thumb drive in it — it stays intact, is not removed, and it has a seal on it — until they get here to the office.”

Votes from all 18 machines are amassed onto a single drive, which “then I upload to the state elections reporting site,” Paschal said. That transmission is not conducted over a regular internet connection.

“It’s sent to Raleigh on a secure encrypted line,” Dunphy said.

Only then, according to Paschal, can the board post its figures online.

“We publish them internally first,” she said, “to check to make sure that the results are correct against our report. After that we can publish to the public.”

Canvassing

The voters’ work finishes on Nov. 3. But there is still much to be done before election season concludes.

“Everybody goes, ‘Oh, I bet you can’t wait until after the 3rd,’” Paschal said. “No, I can’t wait until after the 13th.”

Just five days before Election Day, the U.S. Supreme Court settled a debate over North Carolina’s election rules. They decided not to interfere with the state’s mandate permitting the N.C. Board of Elections to collect mailed-in ballots through Nov. 12 instead of Nov. 6 — the previous deadline set by state law.

But ballots must still have been postmarked by Nov. 3.

“So, on Nov. 13,” Dunphy said, “We have another meeting called canvass, and that just means expert review. What we do at canvass is we deal with contested voting, compliance and generally bellyache. It’s a gripe session.”

In other words, it’s when the BOE must use its professional judgment to make rulings on any votes cast under questionable circumstances.

“We’re auditing, essentially,” Paschal said. “We have to make sure that whatever the precinct totals are, we have the same amount of voter history as ballots cast. And if it doesn’t match, you will have to have an explanation as to why.”

Sometimes, the mistake is as simple as a poll worker failing to click the “vote button” on the back of the polling machine, Paschal said. But other times, it could indicate voter misconduct. Either way, the BOE takes careful steps to ensure the integrity of each vote, or else strike it from the total.

“It’s a tedious process ...” Pachal said, “and it’s exhausting.”

But contrary to some rumors circulating the country, this year’s voting process has proceeded smoothly, the BOE said, at least in Chatham County. Tremendous voter turnout during early voting will likely simplify the process of verifying election day results.

“I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal,” Barosso said, “because I think people are so enthusiastic about voting, they’ve taken all the precautions to make sure they meet the deadlines. I’m sure we’ll have some stragglers, but I doubt seriously it’s going to change the vote.”

Still, the BOE will have gone through nearly two months of rigorous election supervision by the time they can release official results, and its members will be relieved.

“People don’t have a clue what we do here,” Paschal said, “but it’s a lot.”

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

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