Poll worker Jim Taylor checks in primary election voters at the Old Fort Wesleyan Church polling place in McDowell County on March 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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Tuesday is the last day to cast a ballot. The vast majority of votes will be counted Tuesday night, but a close election could hang in the balance of the ballots that arrive after Election Day. 

Here’s how it will work in North Carolina. 

When the polls close, every county will post the vote totals from absentee by mail votes received through Monday and all the early in-person votes. Polls usually close at 7:30 p.m., but it’s not uncommon for judges to grant extensions if voting is delayed for any reason. 

Right off the bat, 4,550,900 votes will be uploaded. 

Democrats are widely expected to have a lead in these early numbers, mostly because they include votes in by-mail ballots. Over 234,000 more Democrats voted using this method than Republicans, with an additional 316,400 wildcard unaffiliated voters thrown in the mix. Polls show the Unaffiliated voters breaking slightly Democratic in this election, but there’s no telling what actually happened until the votes are in. 

Then, Election Day results will start to be uploaded. In 2016, 1,585,000 voters cast ballots on Election Day. As in 2016, election experts are expecting Republicans to cast more day-of votes than Democrats. Even with moderate turnout, North Carolina will surpass 5 million voters with the Election Day returns. 

The basic question of the night will be: Can enough Democrats show up on Election Day to hold on to the lead in early voting? Then, are the margins large enough for one side or the other to call the race before all the outstanding absentee-by-mail, overseas and military, and provisional ballots are counted? 

The Election Project map of North Carolina turnout shows that rural areas, which lean heavily Republican, have the highest percentage of registered voters who have yet to cast ballots. 

The N.C. State Board of Elections expects up to 3% of votes could be counted after Election Day. There are over 150,000 outstanding absentee-by-mail ballots, meaning that voters have requested those ballots but have not turned them in or voted in person. Of course, not all of those votes will be returned, but it’s not possible to know how many of those voters will show up to vote in person, how many will mail the ballots in, and how many will not vote at all. 

If the race is too close to call on election night, voters will have to wait until Nov. 13 to get the election results. That’s when counties are scheduled to canvass, or make official, the vote totals. But election protests and challenges could delay certification, as could any number of nightmare scenarios like a ransomware attack on a county (this happened to Durham County after this year’s primary elections). 

The state Board of Elections is scheduled to certify the statewide results on Nov. 24, but that, too, could be delayed by extensive litigation or discovery of fraud, as happened with North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District race in 2018. 

North Carolina is widely seen as a bellwether swing state in this election because it processes most absentee-by-mail ballots before Election Day, making it possible to count the ballots and upload results by election night.

Along with Florida, North Carolina will count enough votes on election night to potentially call the major races in the state, as opposed to other major swing states, such as Pennsylvania, which won’t start counting by-mail ballots until Wednesday. 

But if the election in North Carolina is close, and if political parties are feeling litigious (all evidence so far says they are), it could still be 10 days, at a minimum, before election results are clear. 

All the while, a presidency, control of the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, N.C. General Assembly and a bevy of state and local offices teeter on the balance of North Carolina’s votes. 

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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