Durham County Board of Elections staff process absentee ballots in October 2020 at the agency's warehouse. Each blue bin holds ballots from a different precinct. The workers are removing ballots from absentee-by-mail envelopes and flatten them, to be scanned in batches later on. Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press

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North Carolina is conducting a statewide recount, spurred by one of the closest elections the state has ever seen. The Republican candidate for chief justice of the state Supreme Court, current Associate Justice Paul Newby, leads Democratic incumbent Cheri Beasley by 406 votes, or seven-thousands of a percent. 

In the span of a few days, every county in North Carolina will recount each of the more than 5.5 million ballots cast in this election, which saw record-setting turnout. While voters cast those ballots over the span of weeks, counties have until Nov. 25 to finish the second count. 

“It’s a very methodical process that needs to be done in a very condensed time frame,” said Robert Inman, Haywood County’s elections director. 

Inman, like a fifth of North Carolina’s election directors, is doing his first recount with paper ballots. Until the end of 2019, 21 counties were using touchscreen voting machines that stored votes on memory cards. During the 2016 recounts, these counties simply had to rerun those memory cards through the computer, which yielded the same results. 

What’s different in recounting this year?

This year, the recount is more onerous and may result in slightly different totals. 

Every difference, though, needs to be accounted for. If the discrepancies cannot be reconciled, then state law says the losing candidate can request a second recount, which would be done by hand. 

The vast majority of ballots should scan the same way on the recount as they were in the original count. The only difference is that the recount may find some differences in voter intent, according to Sara Knotts, Brunswick County’s elections director. 

During the recount, election staff may find ballots that are improperly marked for a machine to read the vote, but the voter’s intent is clear. With a vote by the county board of elections, that ballot can be counted by hand, which could change the totals. 

Questions of voter intent must be voted on by county boards of elections members, who need to be present during the entire recount. 

While changes in vote totals are expected to be minimal, the overall difference between the two candidates is so close that it is feasible, though not necessarily likely, that the results could flip. That would be another trigger for a hand-to-eye recount of every ballot, should Newby request it. 

Who pays for recounts?

Recounts are not free, and counties are left to foot the bill. In addition to the statewide race, at least 15 counties need to simultaneously recount local races, according to information from the N.C. State Board of Elections. 

Robeson County’s elections director, Tina Bledsoe, is expecting it will take three full days to recount all its ballots. Based on some back-of-the-envelope math, Bledsoe said she expects that will cost her office a couple thousand dollars in staff time and equipment expenses. 

“Sure, $2,000 is a lot of money for us, unlike some of those larger counties,” Bledsoe said. “We have to beg and plead for everything we get.” 

Bledsoe referenced the age of the technology her county is using to count the votes. Robeson will use two types of ballot scanners to count the votes. One type was purchased in the last couple of years, and the other, called an M100, is technology from the turn of the century and was purchased in the mid-2000s. Twenty-two counties have only M100s, according to the state board website

Both types of scanners require each ballot to be hand-fed into the machine, which requires bipartisan, two-person teams, per state rules. The state board estimates that counties could scan 600-900 ballots per hour per scanner. 

That means a lot of staff working on several machines, all of which need to be spaced out due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19. 

Larger counties have high-speed scanners, but even then, it will take them several days to work through their ballots. 

Durham County will convene its recount at 10 a.m. Friday and will work through the weekend, according to Brenda Baker, deputy director of elections. The large batches of ballots, such as early votes and by-mail votes, will be counted on the high-speed scanners, while staff members hand-feed Election Day ballots to the other scanners. 

As in Durham, the recounts will mostly happen in large rooms or warehouses to accommodate the machines, staff, board members and public observers. 

Recounts are open to public observation, both in-person and online. Every county will have limited space available, per COVID-19 concerns, and many counties will be livestreaming the recount process, though the cameras will be placed at a distance so the ballots themselves cannot be read.

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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