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Why Elections Results Won't Be Official In North Carolina On Election Night

Ballots in Union County
Alexandra Watts
Ballots are seen being processed in Union County at an absentee ballot meeting.

As everyone waits to find out the election results Tuesday night, there’s a chance that — at least for the presidential election — finding out who won could take some time. That’s because a record number of absentee ballots were used this year, both across the country and here in North Carolina.

There will, of course, be some preliminary results on Tuesday night. The North Carolina State Board of Elections said Sunday that it anticipates election night results "will include 97% or more of all ballots cast."

WFAE All Things Considered host Gwendolyn Glenn and reporter Alexandra Watts have the details.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Alexandra, we’ve done a lot of reporting on how to vote, but we’re now going to talk about what happens to the ballot once it’s cast. So what does happen with ballots after the polls close at 7:30 (Tuesday) night?

Alexandra Watts: Elections officials at each precinct count the votes and put the results on a thumb drive. Those drives are then taken to the county board of elections office where they are tallied. Then the results are sent to the state.

It’s important to note that this year ballots that have been postmarked by 5 p.m. (Tuesday), Election Day, have until Thursday, Nov. 12 to get to the local board of elections. That’s nine days after Election Day, meaning there will still be absentee ballots not yet counted on election night.

Glenn: All eyes are going to be on these county election officials. What are they expecting on the day after the election?

Watts: I spoke with Kristin Jacumin of the Union County Board of Elections who says indeed a lot of eyes are going to be on her from both political parties.

Kristin Jacumin: A lot of parties, like the political parties, the day after the election, they will call us and ask how many provisional ballots were cast, or how many absent possible absentees by mail or sent out that haven't been yet returned, to try to get an idea of the votes that possibly could still come in to change that outcome.

Watts: And county election directors like Kristin Jacumin in Union County must conduct audits as well.

Glenn: Let’s talk about how the canvassing process works. Alexandra, what is canvassing exactly, and when will it start?

Watts: It starts on Nov. 13. Each county election office will verify all the ballots in. That includes those absentee ballots that were postmarked on Election Day — also overseas and military votes and provisional ballots as well.

Glenn: Provisional ballots are when a person checks in to their precinct to vote and they are not on the rolls. That person is then given a provisional ballot that then gets tallied during the canvassing on the county level. Once all of the counties have canvassed their ballots, then what happens?

Watts: So, then there is another canvass, and this is on a state level at the State Board of Elections. And that’s where they total everything up from the counties, and this happens on Nov. 24. It’s called certifying the election. So, even if most votes are in on election night, we will not have those official votes until late November.

Glenn: Alexandra, thank you for joining us today.

Watts: My pleasure.

Glenn: Alexandra Watts is a reporter for both WFAE and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. She is also a Report for America corps member.

Alexandra Watts joined WFAE as a Report for America Corps Member in 2020 in the unique partnership with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library using radio and Wikipedia to fill news deserts.

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