Henderson County polling place election judge Tracye Sheley collects ballots from Daniel and Vanessa Livingston during curbside voting for the primary election on May 17 at Fletcher Town Hall. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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Despite months of harassment and a board of county commissioners willing to broadcast people lying about election security, Surry County’s primary went off smoothly. 

“It has been fantastic,” said Michella Huff, Surry County’s elections director. “We’ve had no real incidents, no threats, no anything.” 

That makes her “very pleased,” she said, especially because it did not feel like a guarantee. On Monday night, the Surry County Board of Commissioners hosted a group of conspiracy theorists who peddled long-disproven lies, misinformation and made-up technical information about the 2020 elections, election security and how voting machines and systems work

Huff said she talked with Bill Goins, chairman of the county commissioners, to say she was disappointed they would give that group a platform to air their claims on the night before an election for fear it would affect voter confidence. 

But Huff pointed to the relatively high turnout, more than 20% in her county and almost that high statewide, as an indication that voters either didn’t believe the misleading rhetoric about election security or at least hadn’t been exposed to it yet. A record number of primary voters across the state cast ballots early

Buncombe County voters mark their primary ballots on May 17 at the St. Mark’s Lutheran Church polling place in Asheville. In addition to the contests featured in most areas of the state, Asheville voters also voted for mayor, council and school board. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Though only 1-in-5 eligible voters cast ballots, turnout was unusually high for primary elections without presidential or gubernatorial races, which will happen again in 2024. 

Across the state, as in Surry, elections ran as planned. The N.C. State Board of Elections didn’t extend voting hours at any precinct, which only happens when there’s a problem, and the state had no reports of significant errors or mishaps, according to board spokesman Pat Gannon

Human errors to be expected

Of course, errors happen, and voters face obstacles to casting ballots, especially when almost 1.5 million people get out and vote. But even where Carolina Public Press found a few voters who were inconvenienced, often from their own mistakes, none raised doubts about the integrity of the system in which they were participating. 

In neighboring Stokes County, a poll worker accidentally marked a woman down as having voted when her husband came to the precinct in the morning. When the woman arrived later that afternoon, the chief precinct official had to play detective to figure out exactly what went wrong. 

The husband was registered in another precinct, so the official called over and had officials there record the husband as having voted. They then allowed the wife to vote with a regular, rather than a provisional, ballot.

Because all ballots for each party primary in Stokes County have all the same races on them, no harm or inaccuracy came from the incident, according to Jason Perry, Stokes County elections director.

These kinds of human errors happen during elections, Perry said, and elections officials work hard to make sure everything is accurately documented and accounted for in the end. 

Henderson County primary voter Tammy Howard submits her ballot with the help of polling place chief judge Richard Tuttle on May 17 at the Whitmire Activity Center polling place in Hendersonville. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

In another twist, Forsyth County elections officials were briefly confused when small numbers of people were not appearing in the paper poll books the county uses on Election Day but were showing up in the online system as registered voters. 

Tim Tsujii, Forsyth’s elections director, said the issue was likely caused by the vendor that printed the poll books. Several precincts had one or two voters affected by this problem, Tsujii said, and all were able to cast provisional ballots that will be counted because the voters were already confirmed to be correctly registered. 

Elections are complex logistical hurdles. Small technical errors like this are not uncommon and are usually solved on the fly through coordination among precinct officials, the county elections office and, occasionally, with input from the State Board of Elections.

An Edgecombe County primary election voter awaits her ballot on May 17 at the County Administration Building polling place in Tarboro. Calvin Adkins / Carolina Public Press

That so many people voted early likely helped keep the Election Day confusion to a minimum. 

Forsyth County had 43,495 voters successfully cast ballots early or on primary day. Counties must report to the State Board of Elections how many voters cast provisional ballots.

Even after he had to wait 45 minutes to cast a provisional ballot, Surry County voter Matt Anderson had only praise for the patience and professionalism of the Pilot Mountain precinct staff. He had registered to vote in the next county over, with the county line only being a few minutes to the east. 

Because Anderson was registered in the wrong county, he could only cast a provisional ballot, which the Surry County Board of Elections will review during county canvass on May 27. Often in these kinds of cases, only the statewide or multicounty races that are on ballots in both counties will be approved to be counted by a county board of elections. 

Huff said she encourages voters to come and observe that decision-making process next week, as well as all the Board of Elections meetings that are open to the public.

The board will have one more meeting to process absentee-by-mail ballots and then will have the county canvass, whereby board members review and count provisional ballots and audit the election results before certifying them. 

Henderson County primary election precinct workers have their stash of voting stickers, masks and cleaning supplies on standby May 17 at the Hendersonville High School polling place in Hendersonville. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Despite all the hot air from election deniers, including pressure from the chair of the Surry County Republican Party, William Senter, that started on March 28, as first reported by Reuters, Huff said none of the election deniers have attended any of the Election Board’s meetings. 

The extra scrutiny on elections is likely to stay around, Huff said. She sees voter engagement in election processes as a way to educate voters about how it all works. 

“I do not feel like it’s a blip,” Huff said of the conspiracy-driven attention on elections. “I would actually hope they could come and participate in the process.”

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Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a former Report for America corps member and former reporter at Carolina Public Press. To reach the newsroom, email us at news@carolinapublicpress.org.

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