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Follow the latest news and information about voting and the 2020 election, including essential information about how to vote during a pandemic and more.

Here’s Exactly How Election Offices Count North Carolinians’ Votes

Erik (HASH) Hersman
Flickr (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

This article is made possible through a partnership between WFAE and Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of our republishing policy.

North Carolinians are turning out in droves to vote in this election: As of Thursday morning, more than half of the state’s registered voters have already cast their ballots. Early voting ended on Oct. 31, but voters can keep sending in their absentee ballots, and, of course, vote in-person on Election Day. All those ballots have to be processed and counted -- a process that has already begun.

Counting The Mail-In Ballots

County election boards had to start meeting every Tuesday five weeks before the election to start reviewing mail-in ballots. The State Board of Elections strongly suggested in a September memo that the boards start scanning the ballots during these meetings because of the sheer number of absentee votes. Voters can mail in their ballots until Election Day, and the Supreme Court allowed the state in a ruling Wednesday to keep counting ballots postmarked by Election Day that arrive by Nov. 12.

During these county board of election meetings, the board members check whether each envelope is signed by the voter in the correct place, whether the witness (or assistant) signed and printed their name in the correct place, and provided their address. Unlike 31 other states, North Carolina law does not require the board to compare the voter’s signature with a previous signature on file in other documents.

What happens when something is wrong with a ballot?

News reporting from two counties provide examples of how these processes play out. During the Nash County board meeting, according to WNCN, 10 of 820 ballots reviewed had deficiencies, which means they have to be “cured.” If the ballot envelope doesn’t have the voter signature or if it’s in the wrong place, if the witness did not print their name or give their address, or signed in the wrong place, the board has to inform the voter of the mistake, and send them a “cure certification” by mail or email, which allows the voter to fix the problem. However, a federal judge ruled in October, if the witness did not sign the envelope at all, the ballot has to be “spoiled” and is not counted. If that’s the case, however, the voter must be notified and issued a new ballot.

The boards can run into other problems. In Cabarrus County, which reviewed 1,198 ballots on Tuesday, WFAE’s Colleen Harry reported that the number of envelopes the board received did not match up with the final number of ballots that were scanned and tabulated that night. After scouring the room, it turned out that 10 ballots were simply still in their envelopes. The ballots are only scanned during this step, and not tabulated until Election Day—no one can know the incoming results beforehand.

Counting In-Person Ballots

More than 3 million North Carolinians have opted to vote in person early, in what the state calls “one-stop” voting. Those ballots also do not get counted until Election Day.

Most counties in North Carolina use paper ballots for in-person voting. In Wake County, for example, after a poll worker has confirmed the voter’s address and voter registration, the voter will fill out the ballot with a pen and place it in an optical scanner. “The machine will read and count your choices, then it will store your ballot in a locked bin under the scanner,” according to the Wake County website. Most counties in North Carolina use the DS200 precinct scanner and tabulator, made by Elections Systems and Software. These devices both scan and add up the votes.

Alternatively, Mecklenburg County, along with several other counties, uses so-called ballot-marking devices. A voter first uses the machine, called ExpressVote, to cast their vote on a touchscreen and gets a printed record of their choices. The device doesn’t store anything. “It’s another level of review,” said Kristin Mavromatis, spokesperson for the board. “We chose to do it this way because we’ve always voted this way, we haven’t voted on paper since the 1970s,” said Mavromatis. The voter then inserts the printout into a scanner.

This printing part is important—North Carolina law stipulates that there has to be a printed record of each vote, even if the state uses an electronic voting system. (This is not the case in every state.)

Tabulating Votes And Releasing Results

After the polls close at 7:30 p.m, precinct workers—overseen by a chief judge, who is appointed by the county board of elections—record the totals on encrypted USB drives, which they hand-deliver to the county board of elections. This happens between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. on Election Night, at least according to the state’s approximate timeline.

When the county board gets a USB drive, the workers input the data into a computer system, also made by Elections Systems and Software, which adds up the results from all the precincts. Then, Mavromatis said, the county board downloads a report from the software onto the same encrypted USB drive, plugs it into a different computer, from which they import the data into the statewide system, and then post the results to the State Board of Elections’ website. They check if the totals match up several times throughout this period. The timing for this process varies. According to the state’s timeline, the precinct results come in between 8:30 p.m. and 1 a.m. on election night. The results appear in files on the state’s website (the Media File and on the ER Dashboard), and the data is refreshed every 5-10 minutes.

According to J. Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawba College, on election night, the first results to be reported are the absentee and early votes. “Within the first hour, we traditionally get that massive dump.”

Of course, these numbers will not represent the total of all mail-in votes, since voters can send their ballots up until Election Day.

Official results are not released on election night. First, the counties have to canvass, a process during which the county board verifies the count by looking at a sample of in-person votes and confirms that all absentee and provisional ballots had been counted. This is completed 10 days after the election. Three weeks after the election, the state board of elections certifies the result. Bitzer said this is important to note, considering that President Trump has been calling for immediate results on election night. “We never had somebody in a prominent national leadership position vying for reelection saying ‘I want the results, the official results, on election night.’ It’s unheard of, it’s absurd.”