Haywood County precinct Chief Judge Debbie Stamey interacts with David Cairnes as he presents a photo ID at the Canton Public Library to vote in the 2016 primary election. Voter ID is not required to vote in North Carolina. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

With in-person early voting beginning today and North Carolina’s March 3 primary election day moving closer, voters may be paying attention to what’s happened in other states to this point.

Just a week after the Iowa Democratic Party failed to deliver a functional caucus, New Hampshire’s election professionals carried out the state’s primary without a hitch on Tuesday.

It’s the New Hampshire model, not the Iowa fiasco, that North Carolina’s primaries are expected to resemble.

That’s because the state’s March 3 primaries are “in no way similar” to Iowa’s caucuses, according to state Board of Elections spokesperson Pat Gannon.

The differences between a primary and a caucus make it very unlikely that the meltdown that prevented Iowa’s election night results from being reported quickly, accurately or completely will happen here in North Carolina, according to several leaders of election administration and technology nonprofits and the state’s election officials.

But the layers of security that North Carolina has in place should also prevent any small problems from causing the process to unravel.

Even if something unforeseen were to happen, state election officials are prepared, they say.

“We have paper and electronic backups of every single vote cast in North Carolina,” Gannon told CPP.

“If there are unanticipated website issues, we still will have accurate, verifiable results.”

Addressing concerns after Iowa

In an ideal world, Iowa’s failures would not affect voter confidence in North Carolina, said David Becker, the executive director and founder of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research.

But he admits that stories of election mishaps from other contexts or even eras can shake voter confidence in the here and now.

“Those kinds of myths can really diminish voter confidence nationwide in a national election like we’re going to experience in November,” Becker said.

“It’s why election officials have such a difficult job to do.”

The job is twofold, Becker said. First, elections need to be as secure and as accessible as possible. Second, especially in the face of misinformation, election officials need to communicate that security and accessibility to voters.

CPP has reviewed North Carolina’s election night reporting procedures and election security, which are largely in line with national best practices. The state board has also launched a voter confidence campaign to communicate its security stance to the public.

Lessons learned from Iowa 2020

Iowa Democratic Party officials, who were responsible for running the caucuses, made several logistical errors that are not at play in North Carolina.

First, they relied on new technology that was rapidly designed and deployed, with minimal testing and no security reviews or certifications by the state or federal government, as reported by several news outlets.

The party planned to use a phone app to send caucus tallies to a central office to compile and report the results. But the volunteers who ran individual caucus sites were not adequately trained in the use of the app and were not prepared to use it on the night of the caucuses. Further, it is not clear how well the app actually worked.

In comparison, North Carolina’s election night reporting system has been in place since 2014 and has not undergone any significant changes since the 2019 municipal elections, according to Gannon.

Further, the system has undergone mock elections to make sure that it can handle the amount of data it will receive on election night. The people inputting the data are county election staff members who are professionals with experience using the system.

The Iowa caucus’s second major mistake was not properly tracking paper records.

This year, the caucus used a new system of voter preference cards, but the cards were not subjected to the same security, monitoring and maintenance that are required of paper ballots in primary states like North Carolina. This led to numerous errors in the reporting of caucus results.

The reason the voter preference cards were not well-maintained, according to John Sebes, the co-founder and chief technology officer for the Open Source Election Technology Institute, was that the Iowa Democratic Party was planning on using the election night reporting results as the official results of the caucus.

The Iowa Democratic Party was not treating the election preference cards that every caucusgoer filled out “as the moral equivalent of paper ballots from which the official count is taken,” Sebes said.

In every state that runs primary elections, election night results are unofficial.

North Carolina’s results are not made official until several audits are conducted, making sure the first count is correct. In addition, many mail-in and provisional ballots, counting in the many thousands for statewide or national elections, are processed after election night.

Because the paper ballots are the official tally of the vote – not what is reported online on election night – ballots in North Carolina are subjected to much more rigorous control, monitoring and accounting than the Iowa voter preference cards.

Every election official and expert with whom CPP talked for this article stressed the same point: Election night results are not official results.

“The results that media and media consumers hear on election night, or even in the immediate day or days after an election, are all unofficial,” Becker said.

“They have no legal meaning at all. And there’s a really good reason for that. That’s because, again, we want to get things accurate and complete rather than get it fast.”

North Carolina’s counties are scheduled to certify the primary results on March 13. Once they have done that, each county’s results will be passed to the state Board of Elections for further review before the statewide results are certified. There is no date set for that certification, as the timing is not laid out in state statute, Gannon said.

If something were to happen…

Though it is unlikely, if the state’s election night reporting system were to go down for any reason during the primary, backup plans and procedures are in place in North Carolina.

Unlike Iowa, where every caucus site reported results to a single location, North Carolina has a diffuse structure, said Charlie Collicutt, Guilford County’s election director.

For Collicutt, 165 precincts report to him, and he reports to the state. That model is repeated across all 100 counties.

That means that each county has its own results and that a failure of the election night reporting system would be a problem for news media outlets and campaigns seeking quick results, but it would not have any impact on the quality, accuracy or preservation of votes themselves.

“We have the ballots if we need them, on-site,” Collicutt said.

Those ballots can be recounted by a high-speed scanner, by multiple smaller scanners, by hand, whatever needs to be done, Collicutt said.

While it does not seem that the state Board of Elections has so far issued a cohesive backup plan for reporting election night results in the unlikely scenario that the state system goes down, that may be addressed in the Election Security Plan the board plans to release in the coming weeks.

However, Collicutt said he could always release his county’s results on the county webpage. Rae Hunter-Havens, election director for New Hanover County, suggested the same or that she could call in results to the state board. Even if it were a significant inconvenience, news media outlets could get election night results county by county.

State Board of Elections Chairman Damon Circosta does not think there will be any problem with the election night reporting system.

“But if we do have a delay,” Circosta said, “that’s going to invite concern. And the most important thing for the public and the media to know is that that a delay doesn’t necessarily mean an inaccuracy. A delay means that we’re going to get it right before we get it fast.”

Collicutt and Hunter-Havens expressed similar sentiments, describing the checks they do on election night before submitting results to the state system.

“We understand everybody wants to see the unofficial results,” Hunter-Havens said.

“But we also want to make sure that we’re following all of both the state protocols and our internal checks to make sure the data is accurate.”

Speed, accuracy and security

The pressure to report results on election night can be intense. Both Collicutt and Hunter-Havens have admitted feeling it. But both stressed that they would not report results they did not feel were accurate.

Getting results out quickly but doing all the checks to make sure the unofficial election night results are accurate is a “tight tightrope to walk,” Collicutt said.

In line with the county election officials, Becker said transparency was more important than speed.

“Don’t be a slave to the media’s demands for quick responses,” Becker said.

“One of the real challenges in Iowa, was that at 9:30 there were anchors on the cable news networks, you know, complaining that the results weren’t in and speculating about, you know, kind of conspiracy theories about that. That is not responsible.”

Becker also said the public needed to manage expectations.

“There’s never been an election that happened where there weren’t routine problems,” Becker said.

“There are going to be some places where polling places don’t open at the right time, where someone’s late, where a poll worker doesn’t properly do something because they missed that part of training, where a voting machine wasn’t plugged in properly. Those are very, very normal things.”

There is a significant difference between these types of routine problems and a systematic undermining of election results that many Americans fear, given reporting on foreign interference in the 2016 elections and the expected interference in this year’s contests.

That drumbeat of uncertainty becomes louder when failures like the Iowa caucus happen. The Democratic Party of Iowa’s missteps became magnified by fake Twitter accounts spreading disinformation, and when the phone number for reporting results was posted on the chat site 4Chan, prompting prank callers and trolls to flood the lines, making reporting results more difficult.

“So there’s a threat here, whether it’s pranksters or actual nation-state adversaries at some point,” Sebes said.

“There’s a threat here that all of the primaries’ legitimacy now has to face that simply wasn’t the case in prior years.”

It’s the role of election official and journalists, Sebes said, to inoculate the public against that kind of disinformation. Even little screw-ups, which happen every election, can feed the disinformation cycle.

“Because ultimately what I’m saying here, North Carolina probably has pretty good practices,” Sebes said. “They should just talk it up to the public.”

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Jordan Wilkie is a former Report for America corps member and former reporter at Carolina Public Press. To reach the newsroom, email us at news@carolinapublicpress.org.

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