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Certifying North Carolina election results follows a meticulous process

Wayne County, Republican Precinct Judge Margaret Parks and Democratic Precinct Judge Tracy Ohnmeiss sort ballots for a hand-to-eye audit on Nov. 14, 2022.jpg
Rusty Jacobs
Margaret Parks (left), a registered Republican, and Tracy Ohnmeiss (right), a registered Democrat, sort ballots for a hand-to-eye audit on Nov. 14, 2022. The two women serve as precinct judges in Wayne County and were part of a bipartisan team auditing ballots from two randomly selected precincts as part of the county canvass, the final tally of votes that precedes state certification of an election.

Four precinct judges in Wayne County — two Republicans, two Democrats — work side-by-side sorting and counting ballots from two randomly selected precincts. The aim is to reconcile the number of votes for each candidate in a top contest — in this case, the U.S. Senate race — with the results tape emitted from the polling site's tabulator.

This is part of the statutorily defined process known as the county canvass. Following the canvass, the State Board of Elections will meet to officially certify the results of the midterms. This year, the state certification meeting will take place on Nov. 29.

Each of North Carolina's 100 counties has gone through a similar process leading up to the canvass: sample hand-to-eye audits, approval of provisional ballot applications and the final count of mail-in votes.

Voters should have '110% confidence in our election process'

Wake County election workers, staffers and precinct judges gathered to conduct a sample ballot audit and to prepare mail-in ballots for counting - part of the county canvass, the final tally of 2022 midterm eletction votes.jpg
Rusty Jacobs
On Nov. 17, 2022, election workers in Wake County — bipartisan teams of precinct judges and board staffers — gathered for the auditing and counting of mail-in ballots that preceded the county canvass, the final tally of votes from this year's midterm elections.

Wake County, with more than 800,000 registered voters, is considerably larger than Wayne County, which has more than 75,000 registered voters and, therefore, requires a much larger scale operation for its post-election audit. In Wake, more than 100 election workers, board staffers and precinct judges filled a cavernous room, assembled to sort and count ballots.

The Wake County elections workers were clad in reflective vests of either orange, florescent yellow or black depending on their role or status. It almost resembled a convention of baggage handlers. The flattening of mail-in ballots and the hand-eye audit proceeded with mechanical efficiency.

At two tables, bipartisan teams of precinct judges passed Election Day ballots from right to left, sorting them by candidate's first name in the U.S. Senate race won by Republican Ted Budd.

One of the precinct judges was Rose Wunder, a registered Democrat and an election volunteer since 2012.

"I've worked the application table, early voting. I've worked help table, curbside, various positions," she said.

"If people understood all the work that went on behind the scenes," Wunder added, "they would have complete, 110% confidence in our election process here in Wake County."

Fellow precinct judge and ballot auditor Michael Trowbridge, a registered Republican, shares Wunder's respect for the meticulous administration of elections. Trowbridge has been working the polls ever since he retired from IBM in 2018.

"There's so much processing and auditing and auditing the audit and having multiple eyes on it," he said.

Wake County sample ballot audit on Nov. 17, 2022 - bipartisan team of precinct judges sorting Election Day ballots.jpg
Rusty Jacobs
Steven Schaale (left), a Republican, and Jeanne Becker-Young (right), a Democrat, on Nov. 17, 2022. They volunteered to work polls on Election Day and during early voting and were part of a bipartisan team conducting a hand-to-eye audit of ballots as part of the Wake County canvass.

A Republican voter lauds the transparency of the county canvass

And it's not just precinct workers who have faith in the elections system.

Iris Kilpatrick, a registered Republican, came out to observe the Wayne County audit of Election Day ballots on Nov. 14, 2022 (2).jpg
Rusty Jacobs
Iris Kilpatrick, a registered Republican and longtime Wayne County resident, came out to observe the sample ballot audit at the local Board of Elections in Goldsboro, on Nov. 14, 2022.

Iris Kilpatrick, a registered Republican voter and longtime resident of Wayne County, was — besides me — the only other non-board member, staffer or elections worker to watch the county canvass.

She said she did so on behalf of a conservative activist group called Liberty First.

"Well, I just believe the general public ought to be involved, I believe that citizens ought to be concerned and I don't think there's enough of that," said Kilpatrick.

Kilpatrick does not count herself among the election deniers and skeptics found in Republican and hard right circles, although she said there are such conspiracy theorists in her group.

She said she would report back to them that the process she witnessed was transparent and reliable.

And does Kilpatrick think it will make a difference to those people inclined to distrust the system?

"I don't know but I hope it will," she replied.

Skepticism persists

Two Wake County election workers prepare to run mail-in ballots through a high-speed tabulator on Nov. 17, 2022 - part of the final tally of votes known as the county canvass.jpg
Rusty Jacobs
Wake County Board of Elections staffers prepare to run reviewed and approved mail-in ballots through a high-speed scanner on Nov. 17, 2022. The mail-in ballots were being counted as part of the final tally of votes from the 2022 midterms.

There are still skeptics out there peddling falsehoods and misconceptions about elections.

According to Pat Gannon, spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, since Election Day, his office and local boards have had to deal with dozens of emails pushed by a group of election deniers demanding to know why their voter histories on the state board's web site don't show the votes they cast during this year's midterms.

Wake County Board of Elections members, from L to R, Keith Weatherly (R), and Gerry Cohen (D), examine mail-in ballot envelopes, on Nov. 17, 2022.jpg
Rusty Jacobs
Wake County Board of Elections members Keith Weatherly (left), a Republican, and Gerry Cohen (right), a Democrat, examine mail-in ballot envelopes, on Nov. 17, 2022, ensuring they're properly notarized or contain the requisite witness attestations.

"If you vote in person, your vote is counted when you insert it into the tabulator at your polling place," Gannon said in a telephone interview.

Updating voter history is a separate process managed by county boards after each election that records the fact you voted in a particular election cycle.

"It's an administrative process and has nothing to do with whether your vote counted or not," he said.

Gannon added that updating a voter history sometimes can take up to a few weeks to complete because of recounts, adjudicating election protests, or counting provisional ballots.

Gannon said it is unfortunate that despite a largely successful election, administered by dedicated public servants and volunteers, with 3.5 million votes cast safely and securely, a small but very vocal group of people still seeks to sow mistrust in a system that works.

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC.