Election watchers from political parties observe Granville County Board of Elections members scan accepted absentee-by-mail ballots on Oct. 13, 2020, in Oxford. Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press

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The 2020 election was the first in which North Carolina voters could track their ballots using an online software system called BallotTrax, but the process caused confusion for some voters and did not provide the postelection data some initially hoped it would.

To track their mail-in ballots, North Carolina voters had to “opt in” to BallotTrax by going to the website and entering their name, birthday and ZIP code. Voters could also sign up to receive updates on their ballot’s status and reminders to vote over text or email.

Ashe County resident Kimberley Mitchell used the system to track her absentee ballot while she was away from her home in Western North Carolina. BallotTrax notified her that her ballot was sent on Sept. 11, but by Sept. 28, she had not received any further updates.

When her ballot was returned to the Ashe County Board of Elections office marked “return to sender,” she still had not received any new BallotTrax notifications. 

Mitchell and her husband called the Ashe County Board of Elections to request new ballots. The county Board of Elections sent her a new ballot, and she received it on Oct. 10.

She did not receive notification from the software until a few days after she mailed her second ballot, at which point it let her know that her ballot was in the U.S. Postal Service system. Later, on Oct. 24, she received notice that it had been accepted. 

Mitchell doesn’t blame the tracking system but said the delays by the Postal Service created challenges for the BallotTrax process.

“For me, the USPS was entirely the problem; not just never-before-in-my-lifetime slow, but almost seeming to lose or misdirect the ballots on purpose,” Mitchell said. 

Tracking ballots

“BallotTrax would have been superhelpful in theory, but there seemed to be no coordination between USPS tracking and BallotTrax,” she said.

“I don’t understand why BallotTrax has the ability to recognize the very first scan when the coded ballot goes into the mail but cannot provide location scan history of said code like they do with Priority Mail tracking.” 

Developed by i3logix, a software company based in Denver, Colo., BallotTrax is one of several ballot tracking systems used by states and municipalities to help voters track their ballots in recent years. North Carolina was one of only five states to use the software across the entire state, rather than in select counties, during the 2020 election cycle. 

BallotTrax uses USPS codes to track and report when a ballot is mailed, when a ballot is scanned within the USPS mail stream on its way to a voter, and when it arrives at the elections office. The county board of elections office also manually logs information into BallotTrax about when a ballot has been approved and counted, or if there are issues with a ballot. 

When BallotTrax doesn’t have USPS data available, the software is still able to use its integration with the voter registration system to provide limited updates, according to Steve Olsen, president of i3logix.

For a voter like Mitchell who did not receive updates, the issue may be that not all counties use the inbound bar codes necessary to track a ballot on its return trip, Olsen said.

“The inbound bar code is more rare (than the outbound) and quite complex and costly to include on the envelope by the printer,” Olsen said. “It is therefore not as widely used. In this case, the ballots are not able to be tracked or scanned until they arrive at the election office.”

As for Mitchell’s change-of-address issues, Olsen said, the adjustments around a change of address take time, and “the messages will eventually catch up to the correct status.” The lack of updates on her second ballot could be because the system had not yet recognized that the first one was unusable.

Pros and cons

Before the election, Pat Gannon, N.C. State Board of Elections public information director, said, “BallotTrax does have a dashboard that allows you to see how many ballots are in the system.” 

However, the data collected was not helpful in determining how many absentee ballots would be returned and counted between Election Day on Nov. 3 and the day mail-in ballots were no longer being accepted, Nov. 9. Not enough data was available to determine which absentee ballots were spoiled, which were not cast and which were awaiting return before canvas day.

Alissa Ellis, advocacy director for Democracy NC, says this is largely because BallotTrax was designed primarily as a tool for voters to track individual ballots and is not designed to report aggregate data. 

“BallotTrax is a user end tool, and so it’s for individuals to check the status of their single ballot using their personal identifying information,” Ellis said. Democracy NC referred to the state’s voter file for daily updates on mail-in ballot data.

“The voter file is the file the state board contributes to, based on returns on the county level, and can be sort of downloaded as it’s updated with that information,” she said.

Ellis also said the voter file also displayed data on when a ballot was scanned in the USPS system using an intelligent bar code, as well as when a ballot was received by the ballot office, and whether it was accepted or needed to be cured. So, the voter file, rather than BallotTrax, provided the aggregate information on incoming mail-in ballots. 

However, the voter file also could not provide a complete picture of the number of outstanding mail-in ballots. 

“You really don’t know how many outstanding ballots there are until, frankly, canvas,” Ellis said, referring to the date that counties make their vote counts official.

Many people requested absentee ballots but eventually elected to vote in person or didn’t end up voting at all. 

BallotTrax did not communicate with the Election Day system used to record in-person votes, said Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University. 

“If somebody requested an absentee ballot but then decided to vote in person, there was no way to cross-reference that,” he said. The lack of cross-referencing made it difficult to know until canvas day which outstanding mail-in ballots to exclude from a count because someone decided to vote in person.

Any ballot tracking reported through the voter file meets the same problems BallotTrax does. Ballot updates can be delayed due to delays in the Postal Service. Ellis said delays were so severe that Democracy NC told voters not to call their board of elections unless they hadn’t heard an update three weeks after submitting their ballot.

Updates in both BallotTrax and the voter file could also have been delayed because county board of elections offices did not have time to immediately log ballot updates into BallotTrax.

As part of a legal settlement, the N.C. State Board of Elections extended the deadline for receiving absentee-by-mail ballots until 5 p.m. Nov. 12, a legal move that was allowed to stand by in the state and federal supreme courts. 

The lengthy return period meant it took longer to get results in 2020, Ellis said, but the extension “was really really great for voters.” 

Ballots cast on Election Day were received and counted until Nov. 9. Voters could use the extra time to cure ballots that had missing information, such as voter address. The extension may have resulted in a delay in reporting the results, but according to Ellis, it ensured more legally cast votes could be counted, particularly from rural counties where mail is more likely to be delayed. 

Jessenia Eliza, director of government initiatives at Democracy Works, an organization that developed BallotTrax’s rival software Ballot Scout, said ballot tracking “increases voter trust by allowing them to check the status of their ballot and advocate for themselves if they see there is an issue with the delivery of their ballot.”

The State Board of Elections launched BallotTrax on Sept. 11, a week after mail-in voting began. In addition to ballot tracking, the state board used the software to combat disenfranchisement and administrative issues. 

BallotTrax was used to confirm and count mail-in ballots that were sent in by Election Day but were missing a postmark, said Karen Brison Bell, head election official in the state. In the lead-up to the election, there was some concern that there would be no way to confirm whether ballots without postmarks were acceptable.

On Sept. 30, as part of a lawsuit, Democracy North Carolina asked “that counties use phone numbers, email addresses and North Carolina’s ballot tracking system, BallotTrax, to notify voters of potential errors, not relying solely on mail.” 

BallotTrax was one of several methods used to supplement the official letter sent out to voters who needed to cure their ballots in Mecklenburg County, the second-highest in the state for mail-in voting, according to Kristen Mavromatis, public information manager for the county.

“All the information automatically went into BallotTrax,” she said. “The variable is, unless the voter signed up for it, they didn’t see BallotTrax.”  

By answering questions like “Where’s my ballot?” before they are asked, BallotTrax reduces workload for the state and county boards of elections and increases transparency for voters, Olsen said.

“Call rates drop from one in four or five voters to one in 20 voters,” he said. “The most interesting data is the turnout — BallotTrax voter turnout 20% higher on average than voters that do not opt into the service.”

Brinson Bell reported that no decisions have been made about whether to continue to contract with BallotTrax in the future.

This story was produced with the help of tips reported through ProPublica’s Electionland project. If you experience or witness a problem voting, please let us know.

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