Belinda Dancy hands Edgecombe County chief elections judge Margaret Hendricks her curbside ballot on Election Day, Nov. 3, at the Braswell Center in Tarboro. Calvin Adkins / Carolina Public Press

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By the time it was all said and done, 893,300 voters cast ballots in North Carolina on Election Day, just more than 16% of all votes cast in this election so far.

That’s the smallest share of voters to act on Election Day ever, signaling a decisive shift in the way North Carolinians vote. Whether it will mean a long-term shift or be limited to the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be seen. 

As the results rolled in, they followed an expected pattern.

The earliest results from early and by-mail voting favored Democratic candidates, but as Election Day results were uploaded, Republicans stormed back and, in many races, took the lead.

As in so many other facets of American life, when and how people vote is also polarized.

In North Carolina, registered Democrats had a significant edge in vote-by-mail. Republicans carried Election Day, and both groups tied in early in-person turnout — a category previously dominated by Democrats. Unaffiliated voters sat in the middle. 

Tarboro resident Cedric Walston receives information from precinct employees Tuesday at Edgecombe County Administration Building Carmon Auditorium in Tarboro. Calvin Adkins / Carolina Public Press

Votes cast early made Election Day quiet

For months, election administrators have hoped high turnout in by-mail and early in-person voting would take pressure off Election Day, and they were right. By all accounts, it was a quiet day for election administration. 

Derek Bowens, Durham County’s elections director, was expecting 30,000 votes to be cast on Nov. 3. They banked fewer than half of that. 

“It was very surprisingly slow,” Bowens said. 

Besides some small and expected problems, like overexcited electioneers, everything went smoothly, Bowens said. 

That mostly held true across the state.

The N.C. State Board of Elections extended hours for 10 precincts in four counties, with the last site closing at 8:15 p.m., a 45-minute extension from the planned 7:30 p.m. close. Sampson County voters alleged delayed starts, so several precincts there had extended time. 

On the back end, Union County was among the last to begin reporting results, with a procedural error requiring officials to input the results manually. The county did not provide any more information, but it did have the votes in just after midnight. 

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which operated a voter hotline for reporting voting problems, said it got thousands of calls but none about “significant issues or barriers to voting.” 

Between the Nov. 3 turnout and the nearly 4.6 million by-mail and early votes cast, 74% of the state’s voters cast a ballot, setting a record for voter engagement in recent North Carolina history.

More than 100,000 more ballots are expected to come in with absentee-by-mail, provisional and overseas or military votes, which will all be counted and reported on Nov. 13. 

The outstanding ballots are not likely enough to flip the presidential or Senate races, though national news outlets are not yet calling North Carolina for any of those candidates. Close races for Supreme Court chief justice, attorney general and several legislative seats do have a chance of seeing changes in outcome once those ballots are counted.

The state won’t know its final results until at least Nov. 13, when county boards of election meet to finish counting votes and make the counts official. Then, the N.C. State Board of Elections is scheduled to meet and certify statewide results on Nov. 24. 

Steven Franklin rallies for Republicans near the National Guard Armory in Henderson County on Election Day. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Rumors more damning than reality 

Every Election Day, some precincts struggle to start voting. It can be as simple as forgetting to plug in a voting machine. But when the mistakes are misunderstood, they can create the mirage of a much bigger problem. 

Take the North Williams precinct in Chatham County. 

Michael Zavaglia was in line at 6:30 a.m. There was some confusion when the polls opened, which caused a little delay. Zavaglia heard there was a problem with the system used to look voters up and he decided to leave. 

Pretty quickly, the problem, which stemmed from a printer malfunction, was solved. 

But in Zavaglia’s mind, and for the news media outlets that picked up the story, there was a potentially huge error. 

“The computers were malfunctioning,” Zavaglia said. “They said that everybody had voted in Chatham County at that point. They just weren’t letting us vote until they got that worked out.”

When he got home, he told his wife, Justine Zavaglia, about the error. 

“I was like, ‘Oh, great, so the whole county will be miscounted,’” she said. 

The Zavaglias came back later in the morning and were both able to cast ballots, and there was no line. But until they talked with Carolina Public Press, they had no idea that the rumor they heard — and repeated on major news outlets in the region— was false.

At check in, a poll worker records the voter in a computer program and prints a form for the voter to sign as part of the record-keeping process to track voting.

For a few minutes in the morning, the printer was not working. When precinct officials fixed the printer issue and attempted to reprint the form, already checked-in voters showed as already having voted. 

A precinct official mistakenly extrapolated that the system must be showing that everyone in the county had already voted. 

The precinct official shouldn’t have told people that, said Pandora Paschal, Chatham County’s elections director. But it’s par for the course on Election Day. 

“It always starts out like that,” she said. “Emotions running high, everybody starts in a panic.” 

Javier Benitez Marcos and his family Tuesday in the parking lot of the Chatham County Agricultural Conference Center precinct in Pittsboro. Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press Credit: Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press

Provisional votes, by-mail ballot cures

Thousands of voters cast provisional ballots on Election Day in every national election. In 2016, North Carolinians cast 25,000 provisional ballots cast. It is expected to be a bit less this year because the Election Day turnout was relatively muted. 

Javier Benitez Marcos, a voter at Chatham’s Pittsboro precinct, almost had to cast a provisional ballot until a precinct official figured out the problem. 

The person who registered him to vote switched his last two names, Benitez Marcos said. 

Though there was no line at all at the voting site, it took Benitez Marcos an extra 20 minutes for precinct officials to find him in the voter rolls, confirm his identity, and allow him to cast a ballot. 

The precinct official told Benitez Marcos to vote early in the next election so he could fix his registration and vote at the same time. 

Benitez Marcos’ wife and young son waited for him to cast his ballot. It was important for him to bring his family along to the polling place, he said. 

“I want to teach to my boy that it is very important to come” and vote, Benitez Marcos said. English is his second language. 

“I love when I see people to come and do what is right, to give your vote,” Benitez Marcos said. “Any side, you need to go and do your vote. That is very important to me.”

Editor’s note: This article originally published on Nov. 4, 2020, but was updated on Nov. 5.

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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.