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At 11 a.m. Friday, counties will begin making the election results official.
In the 10 days since Election Day, elections officials in each county have completed a dizzying amount of work.
In order to finalize the election, the nonpartisan and professional elections staff in each elections office need to present the entire election, with every ballot counted and every irregularity explained, to their county’s bipartisan board of elections. If each board accepts that due diligence was done and the results are legitimate, its members will certify the election in that county.
This process is called “canvassing” the election. It is how democracy works in North Carolina and how it has worked for years.
“I think here in North Carolina we have one of the best processes I have seen,” said Stacy “Four” Eggers IV, a Republican member of the N.C. State Board of Elections.
Though Eggers has been with the state board for just over a month, he previously served on the Watauga County Board of Elections and knows the process counties are going through.
During the meetings, each county will finish counting each of its accepted provisional, by-mail and military or overseas ballots. The elections staff will present the board with the election audit results, or, in smaller counties, the board will audit samples of ballots during the meeting.
This step is particularly important to Eggers, who said it’s an important tool for helping voters have confidence in the election. An election cannot be certified without first passing an audit.
In some cases, registered voters or political candidates may file an election protest. This is a fairly serious process that alleges there were enough problems in an election to potentially change the outcome. Boards of elections will have to consider these protests, if there are any, before certifying their county’s results.
Once the results are finalized, each county will upload the information to the state. Most counties are expected to do this by Friday night, though some smaller counties have been known to take a little longer.
These results will help national news outlets finally call the presidential race in North Carolina. Though Donald Trump is expected to win the state, the result will not change the national outcome electing Joe Biden to be the next president because other states with more than 270 combined electoral votes have already chosen Biden.
Not all down-ballot races will be finalized, though. The closest statewide race is for the chief justice seat on the state Supreme Court between Republican Paul Newby and Democrat Cheri Beasley.
On Thursday night, Beasley overtook Newby, and led by 1,037 votes as of Friday morning.
These late-counted votes were mainly from by-mail ballots that arrived after Election Day. Some ballots remain to be counted through Friday, including provisionals and overseas or military votes, along with the last-arriving by-mail ballots.
As of Friday morning, Newby has filed election protests in Duplin, Durham, Guilford, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Robeson, Scotland and Wake counties, alleging that each of these counties counted by-mail ballots that were not postmarked by Election Day, were not received on time, or had incomplete information on the return envelope.
Newby’s allegations are a continuation of the legal fight over which by-mail ballots can be counted. Newby refers to the statutory requirements, where a September settlement in state court between the State Board of Elections and a group backed by a major Democratic law firm changed those rules.
Republicans tried to overturn the state court settlement through appeal and in federal lawsuits, both of which reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which did not take up the cases, leaving the settlement in place.
This race, along with a number of local races, could head for a recount. These happen after county canvass but before the state elections board votes to certify elections statewide on Nov. 24. Recounts rarely change vote totals by significant margins, though in extremely tight races, it’s technically possible that they could flip the totals.
Once the state certifies the votes, the election is officially over. The governor will send the state’s electors to cast votes in the Electoral College, and on Jan. 20, the next president will be inaugurated.
Most state-level officials will take office in January, but many local offices, such as county commission seats, will be filled immediately or in December, depending on the local rules.
Knowing your vote was counted
North Carolina has several ways to cast a ballot. Each requires a different process for counties to process that ballot and count the votes. In each method, voters have a different way of confirming that their ballots were counted.
The easiest way to know is by voting in person on Election Day. When voters see their ballots go into the scanner, they have voted. That ballot is accepted, and those votes were scanned and counted. The county uploads those totals to the state results.
To know whether their votes counted, by-mail and early in-person voters can check online or call their county board of elections. Voters can look themselves up on the state voter search then look under the Your Absentee Ballot tab. If the return status is “Accepted,” the ballot has been counted or will be by the end of the day.
This year, many voters were confused by the Voter History section of the voter lookup tool. Even if they had a ballot accepted, voters do not see this year’s election under that tab. Elections officials around the state have been fielding calls from concerned voters who wanted to make sure their votes were counted.
But the voter history information is never updated until after the county canvass. It can’t be, according to Derek Bowens, Durham’s elections director.
“The canvass is the process of finalizing the election, so we wouldn’t want to finalize voter history before we finalize the actual election,” Bowens said.
Checking voter history is one of the many types of audits, in addition to making sure the ballots were counted correctly, that county elections staffs have to complete before the canvass.
The voter history audit is done to make sure people did not vote twice, to update voter registrations from early voting and provisional ballots, and to make sure all ballots are accounted for.
Election Day voter turnout is compared to by-mail and early voting turnout to make sure no one tried to vote using multiple methods methods. The number of ballots cast is compared to the authorization-to-vote forms, which every voter signs when checking in to vote in person.
Voter history also has to account for provisional ballots. Voters cast provisional ballots when there is a question about a voter’s qualification to vote or to vote a particular style of ballot.
Voters with out-of-date registrations who went to cast a ballot on Election Day, for example, would have to vote a provisional ballot.
This year, 41,000 voters cast provisional ballots. Each and every one of them has to be researched to see if it can be counted, or partially counted.
If a voter moved one precinct over but did not change registration, most of the votes would likely to be counted. But if a voter moved to another county without updating registration, where all of the local races would be different, the statewide races are the only votes on that ballot that could be counted.
Voters who cast provisional ballots can check to see if their ballots were counted online after Friday by using the state’s online lookup tool.
Looking to the future
The state’s postelection processes are likely to change by the next election cycle.
When Damon Circosta, the chairman of the State Board of Elections, was seated in August 2019, he said he wanted to bring in a new kind of postelection audit.
This would be in addition to the state’s current “sample audit,” whereby elections staff or board members manually check paper ballots to make sure that the machines counted the ballots correctly, which is required by state law.
The new audit, called a risk-limiting audit, would be more comprehensive than the current practice and has become the gold standard for postelection audits around the country.
In North Carolina’s March primary, the state piloted this audit in a few counties. The tentative goal at the time, according to the state board’s spokesperson, Pat Gannon, was to have the new audit piloted across the state for the November election.
Then the coronavirus hit, and the project was delayed.
But the state board is still advertising that the new audit will be coming soon.
This year’s experience also has Eggers, the new Republican member of the state board, looking to the future. Eggers said he likes that each county is responsible for administering its own election. But he would want more centralization of some election data and is thinking about ways to streamline the postelection processes.
The state could devise a way to post lists of who voted on Election Day, for example, the way it does for early voting, Eggers said. This would likely require changes to how that information is captured.
As it stands, though, Eggers said he has faith in this year’s elections and saw nothing that would lead him to doubt North Carolina’s results.
“I’m very proud of how North Carolina runs its elections,” Eggers said. “It’s a good system, a fair system.”