Nash County poll worker Jim Martin instructs Jose Negron as he prepares to vote in the 2020 primary election at the Braswell Memorial Library polling place in Rocky Mount on March 3. Calvin Adkins / Carolina Public Press

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The gears of democracy are still turning in North Carolina, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday, the State Board of Elections certified results from the state’s March 3 primary, with the exception of one county contest requiring a redo and a handful of local races facing protests or appeals.

The election, which came in just under the wire before the COVID-19 pandemic hit North Carolina, was run with few bumps and no major issues, according to watchdog organizations like Democracy NC.

At the start of its Friday meeting, State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell used her emergency powers to postpone the state’s only runoff election by six weeks. Now, the second Republican primary for U.S. House District 11 is set for June 23.

The district includes much of Western North Carolina’s rural counties, as well as the only major urban center, Asheville.

Brinson Bell picked June 23 because it is outside the eight-week window recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to limit gatherings of 50 or more people to control the spread of COVID-19.

Why canvass after an election?

The results reported on election night are always unofficial, which is why counties and the state need to certify the results.

Between election night and canvassing the election, county election boards process provisional and mail-in ballots received after election day, which can change outcomes for close races.

Taking between two and three weeks to certify final, official results is part of the normal process in the state’s democracy.

By and large, the primary elections and the canvass were carried off with few problems and no major incidents, despite some logistical problems created by efforts to employ social distancing during the process.

What observers reported

Democracy NC was the only statewide organization that widely monitored the election and canvassing process, with 50 volunteers observing over 30 counties.

Other statewide groups of all political stripes, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Civitas, the John Locke Foundation and the NAACP, did not have on-the-ground observers. The League of Women Voters had a diffuse effort to monitor a handful of counties.

Observers noted barriers for some voters but on the whole did not see any unusual or major problems like the long lines that plagued California or Texas, according to Democracy NC’s executive director, Tomas Lopez.

“I think the upshot of this is I don’t think we saw unusual issues,” Lopez said.

“We did see recurrences of things that keep people from having a smooth election experience, and in particular, when it comes to things like provisional ballots and absentee ballots, (they) do take on an added importance … with the potential changes (due to COVID-19).”

Lopez called out provisional and absentee ballots because North Carolina will face a changed reality for its November elections, which will potentially result in more absentee-by-mail ballots cast as a means to avoid the spread of the 2019 coronavirus.

Whenever there’s a significant change in elections operations, there is also an increase in provisional ballots cast.

Adjusting elections to a health crisis

Brinson Bell, the state’s executive director of elections, briefly touched on potential changes for November’s elections during Friday’s meeting, seemingly downplaying calls to move the election to all mail-in ballots.

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“Due to these time constraints and guidance we have received, our response to coronavirus for the November general election must not upend the system we have in place, but rather be an all-out effort to reinforce, strengthen and improve voting, and we know it in North Carolina.”

Brinson Bell also stressed that North Carolina was already a no-excuse absentee ballot state, meaning that anybody can vote by mail if the voter requests to do so. This will likely lead to an increase in voting by mail, even if the state’s entire system is not moved to an absentee system.

A peek inside Orange County’s process, and lessons for November

The Orange County commissioner race provided an important lesson: Election night results are unofficial.

There were two seats available in the District 1 County Commission race. Jean Hamilton won the first seat by several thousand votes. Current chair of the commission, Penny Rich, was in second place, ahead of Mark Dorosin by nine votes.

To canvass an election, county election boards need to process provisional ballots, challenged ballots, and process absentee mail-in, military and overseas ballots that arrived after Election Day.

At the end of provisional ballots, Rich was up by 19. But after the mailed ballots were counted, the lead had flipped. Dorosin was up by nine.

Rich requested a recount, which took Orange County’s election staff 11 hours, a likely prolonged effort because staff had to keep “social distance” while reprocessing the over 50,000 ballots cast. Dorosin’s lead was cut to seven.

Why does this matter for November?

In 2016’s presidential race, Orange County had 82,818 ballots cast, with almost 4,000 cast by mail.

If the COVID-19 pandemic is not solved by November, a resulting sharp increase in mail-in ballots would mean an increase in the mail-in ballots received and processed after election day. That means voters will have to wait longer to learn the official election results. Election night leads can flip in close races.

Democracy watchers also know how painful the process can be when reviewing mail-in ballots. Voters sometimes sign the envelope in the wrong place, or the handwriting for the required witnesses to the ballot looks a little too similar. This prompts discussion among the county board of elections members about whether or not to accept that ballot. This takes time and can be contentious.

Mail-in ballots also create more work for election staff from a simple process standpoint. Every mailed-in ballot means there was a request for that ballot, the ballot was mailed out, and, when returned, it had to be removed from its envelope and fed into a tabulator.

For in-person voting, that happens in real-time and does not require as much back-end work by elections officials. This process could be especially onerous for smaller counties without a high-speed ballot scanner.

Absentee votes could also pose a unique problem in North Carolina, where all absentee votes — including mail-in votes and early votes — are tracked with a unique ID. North Carolina assigns this number to all early votes under state law, which is meant to prevent voters from casting multiple ballots during early voting.

The consequence is that every ballot cast by mail or in early voting can be retrieved and associated with the voter who cast it. This technicality means that absentee votes are confidential — it is illegal for the state to share ballots with anybody, short of a court order — but the votes are not secret.

State board preparing for the challenge of COVID-19

State Board of Elections Chairman Damon Circosta opened Friday’s meeting with a promise.

“When I became chair of this board, I pledged to make sure that our elections would be both secure and accessible,” Circosta said.

“And undoubtedly the coronavirus has increased our degree of difficulty. But I want everybody listening on this call to know something. We are up to the challenge.”

It is too early to know exactly how the state will respond to the crisis, though the board identified three concurrent efforts to find solutions.

Brinson Bell is serving on a national election infrastructure working group organized under the federal Election Assistance Commission and Department of Homeland Security. She is also organizing a task force of county election directors to focus specifically on North Carolina’s needs.

Finally, the N.C. House of Representatives has appointed a select committee to address the COVID-19 pandemic, with one working group dedicated to the continuity of state operations, such as elections.

Meanwhile, Congress is contemplating federal legislation to support states to move to majority mail-in ballot elections for November, though those bills have not yet reached a vote.

It is too early to know how North Carolina will act to ensure November’s elections are carried out, though Brinson Bell said the window is closing fast.

“We recognize that the long-term window is really just a little more than three months beyond today,” Brinson Bell said during the meeting.

“If we walk backward from … the November election, then we realize we begin one-stop early voting in October and absentee-by-mail voting in September.”

To meet those deadlines, Brinson Bell said, state and county boards of elections need to begin preparing in July and August.

Races that remain uncertified by the State Board of Elections

Circosta excluded the following races from state certification due to pending election challenges or, in the case of Columbus County, the need for an election do-over due to a close race and poll worker error. In Columbus County, poll workers issued 10 voters the wrong ballot, therefore invalidating a race that was won by four votes.

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  • The N.C. House of Representatives District 12 Democratic primary.
  • The District Court Judge District 15B Seat 3 Democratic primary.
  • The Johnston County Board of Commissioners District 1 Republican primary.
  • The Columbus County Commissioner District 2 Republican primary.*
  • The Wayne County Commissioner District 3 Democratic primary.
  • The following Democratic contests in the city of Winston-Salem: mayor, and the city council races for the north, south, and east wards.
  • Caswell County Board of Education District 4.
  • Avery County Board of Education.

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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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