Laura Klein of Black Mountain checks in to vote in the 2020 primary election with poll worker Jan Duckworth at the Black Mountain Primary School polling place in Buncombe County on March 3. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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Just after 8:35 p.m., Durham County’s first 2020 primary Election Day precinct results arrived at the county’s Board of Elections.

Soon after, the precinct totals started pouring in.

That had Derek Bowens, Durham’s election director, walking from room to room calling out — “30-1” or “48” — the precincts arriving with returns and the number of precinct results uploaded to the state’s election night reporting website.

To get the results, election judges, who are in charge of each precinct, drive back to the Board of Elections office in downtown Durham with their cars full of ballots and a box of essential election equipment.

The ballots are pulled from their cars and locked away. The judges then walk across the street and check in their phones, the flash drives with the vote counts and any provisional or spoiled ballots.

Meanwhile, counties across the state uploaded results from early and mail-in absentee ballots. Counties can, if they make public announcements, start counting the mail-in ballots they have received even before polls closed Tuesday.

As soon as the final polls were closed, those unofficial early voting totals were posted online.

Keen vote watchers, candidates and election watchdogs sat in the room with the Durham County Board of Elections, counting up the results and calculating if the early results look good for their elections.

This scene played out, with some variations, in 100 boards of elections offices in each county in the state.

Mostly smooth sailing for voters, election officials

This year, the primaries were carried out with little drama beyond the contests themselves — a few of them close or with unexpected outcomes.

The state Board of Elections extended open hours at two polling places — one in Bertie and one in Forsyth — for printer errors and a shortage of certain ballots, respectively, for only 30 and 40 minutes, each.

Democracy NC, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization working to improve election administration and access to the vote, reported that four precincts — in Buncombe, Chatham, Mecklenburg and Wake — had voter lines longer than 30 minutes.

A 2014 report by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration said that no voter should have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote. It is not yet clear why there were long lines in those locations.

Election directors in each of those counties had not responded to late-night emails from Carolina Public Press asking about causes for the backups.

Democracy NC Executive Director Tomas Lopez said his organization had more than 300 volunteers deployed across 37 counties.

“I’d say that we’ve seen issues (like those we see on any given election day), but it looks like we’ve avoided systemic breakdowns or misfires,” Lopez wrote in an email to CPP.

Some problems inevitably surface on election days, but no major issues made waves during the reporting of the unofficial results.

Counties have 10 days to conduct statutorily required audits and approve official results — a process called canvassing.

“There are a number of ways in which the voting experience can improve — addressing long lines, technical issues, poll worker training, and preventing and responding to intimidation issues are all important,” Lopez said.

“But we’re grateful that voters have been showing up and that officials have been largely responsive.”

Holly Reid and Rick Shaw of Hillsborough receive their 2020 primary election ballots with no line to wait in at the Hillsborough Recreation Center in Orange County on March 3, 2020. Jake Axelbank / Carolina Public Press

Voter experience

North Carolina has nearly 3,000 polling places.

When CPP visited the polling place on Schley Road in Orange County on Tuesday, no voters were in the tall-ceilinged room church room converted to a polling place.

The chief judge was working with her election judges to compare the ballot count on the precinct tabulator and the number of voter check-in forms.

Election judges run these small checks regularly throughout the day, up to several times an hour, to make sure everything is running smoothly.

Soon after, Asia Tilley arrived with her parents and sister, all piled into the same red Kia. They did not have to wait in line.

“The election went well!” Orange County Elections Director Rachel Raper wrote in an email to CPP. “Our turnout was up from 2016, and all precincts were busy all day.”

Thirteen miles north, in Person County, there was a line out the door at 6:30 p.m. About 20 voters jutted out into the night, thankful it was not raining.

This was the big rush of the day after voters were getting off work and going to vote before the polls closed an hour later.

Another multigenerational pair, Kirk Redman and his daughter, Rachel, cast their ballots in the small, brick building Person County was using as a polling place.

“As soon as my kids were old enough to vote, I made sure they did,” Kirk said. He has been registered to vote in Person County since 1991.

‘All you can do is vote’

CPP talked to a number of longtime voters throughout the day. None seemed troubled by national reports of attempted election interference by foreign nation-states or disinformation campaigns by domestic politicians.

Mitch Christiansen, who has been registered in the county since 2004, was nonplussed that he did not have to show a photo ID.

He worried about voter fraud because he did not have to prove his identity at the polling place. Voter fraud is not a major issue in the state, or anywhere in the country, and its impact has been greatly exaggerated, according to most elections experts.

But Christiansen was not concerned about the integrity of the elections in his county, or about an election being stolen nationwide. He had a simple message for any concerned voters.

“All you can do is vote,” Christiansen said. “If you have concerns, this is the time to express them.”

Despite voting in a different political party’s primary, Earl Bailey agreed with Christiansen’s assessment. And election officials and experts around the country have been pushing the same message ahead of the election — vote.

Larry Goswick, in Franklin County to the east, described an epic journey to cast his ballot.

He forgot to check his voter registration and drove to his early voting site from elections past.

They were not casting ballots there, and they sent him to the police department for help finding his polling place.

They were helping him find his registration when Goswick’s brother called and sent him to the right location.

Goswick is retired and has lived his entire 70 years in Franklin County. He has been registered to vote there since 1980.

Not everybody has the freedom to spend as much time as he did getting to the precinct and casting a ballot, Goswick said.

Other voters had their kids in the car or were trying to vote and get back to work before their break ended. As a result, he worried about how long it was taking to check in at the polling place in Franklinton Elementary School’s gymnasium.

At 11:37 a.m., 10 voters were in line to check in, but most of the polling booths were still open, meaning the check-in process was the bottleneck.

“I want people to vote, even if they vote for the other guy,” Goswick said.

“I want people to vote and I’m afraid a slow process will dissuade people.”

In all, it took Goswick about 15 minutes to vote, and no reports surfaced about long lines in Franklin County later in the day.

Voter David Fellerath of Durham brings his 2020 primary election ballot to be scanned with help from a poll worker shortly before 8 a.m. March 3, 2020, at the American Legion 7 polling place in Durham. Jake Axelbank / Carolina Public Press

Election night results are unofficial results

When precinct election judges arrive at Durham’s Board of Elections, they turn over their election materials. The county’s election officials go through a “Quick Fire Audit,” checking to make sure all the necessary materials are returned and that the provisional, spoiled or challenged ballots are turned in.

Each county creates its own method for processing election materials, and each election director whom CPP has interviewed described some version of these on-the-go audits.

Every county will carry out more thorough audits between election night and March 13, when counties will either approve or reject the results of the election as accurate. Those results will then be passed to the state Board of Elections for review and presumably approval. State statute does not define a timeline in which the state board needs to approve election results.

The county and statewide approval of vote totals include mail-in ballots postmarked on election day and provisional ballots.

They also have undergone a series of reviews to ensure their accuracy. That is the difference between the election night, unofficial results and the actual vote totals approved by counties and the state.

A poll worker in Nash County scans 2020 primary election voters’ paperwork before giving them ballots at the Braswell Memorial Library polling place in Rocky Mount on March 3, 2020. Calvin Adkins / Carolina Public Press

Secure election data?

Perhaps the most important item that precinct election judges deliver is the thumb drive from the precinct tabulator.

These hold all the votes cast at that precinct, and this total is used both for election night reporting and in audits making sure the final count is correct.

Bowens, Durham’s election director, takes these thumb drives and plugs them into a computer that is not connected to the internet, generically called the “election management system.”

The computer has a program that downloads the election results, converts them to another file type and exports them to a new, fresh-out-of-the-package thumb drive.

That is then plugged into another computer that is connected to the internet, and the results are uploaded to the state election night reporting system, where they become public for the world to see. Those flash drives are never reused in the election management system.

This process of using a computer disconnected from the internet, and a series of fresh thumb drives to move the results to an internet-connected computer, is designed to keep the election system secure from hackers.

If the main election computer is not connected to the internet, the theory goes, it cannot be attacked by bad actors trying to interfere in the election.

However, the election night reporting website still remains a possible target of attack.

Federal intelligence reports and the Senate intelligence committee have shown that bad actors looking to introduce confusion could hack election night reporting sites and change results. This kind of meddling would not last long before being noticed, but it could cause distrust in the real result of the election.

Before posting the results live, Bowens and his staff check the uploaded election results against printed tapes from the precinct tabulators. Those tapes are checked against the number of voter check-ins — another type of on-the-fly check to make sure results are accurate.

At the end of the night, once all the precincts are uploaded, they check to make sure the state website shows the same numbers Durham County has internally. At 11:53 p.m. March 3, Durham County posted its final results.

“We’ve checked the internal results versus the published results and we matched,” Bowens said.

It was time to go home.

A poll worker pulls off an “I voted” sticker stowed alongside the hymnals at the First Baptist Church of Black Mountain polling place in Buncombe County on March 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

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