Almost four years ago, North Carolina’s 15 presidential electors convened in Raleigh. Gathered with dozens of state officials, local honorees, and other attendees, the electors cast their ballots for Donald Trump.
“Our ceremonies today reflect the snapshot in time that is North Carolina, 2016,” Secretary of State Elaine Marshall said at the start of the meeting.
This slice of pre-pandemic life seems foreign — friendly handshakes, microphones passed around, electors standing shoulder-to-shoulder as they shared pens and signed to certify their votes.
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with the looming threat of legal chaos, has brought into focus the once peripheral mechanics of electing a president, including the Electoral College. North Carolina’s electoral votes promise to play a deciding role in electing the next president. But with a Democratic governor, Republican control in both state General Assembly chambers, a massive rise in by-mail voting, and thin polling margins all in play, normalcy in the process of designating those electoral votes is no longer a safe bet.
How the Electoral College usually works
In North Carolina, the secretary of state — still Marshall, a Democrat — supervises the Electoral College process, as outlined in North Carolina General Statute 163, but they do not appoint the electors. Instead, each recognized political party selects its own slate of electors, one for each of the state’s 13 congressional districts and two at-large electors.
Recent rule changes made by the Democratic and Republican parties have empowered their state leadership to approve each elector, ensuring electors vote for the party’s nominee and guarding against faithless electors. This year, both parties also used electronic forms to identify interested electors, who then campaigned for the position at precinct, district, and state conventions before their selection.
“There’s a vetting process that there wasn’t even four years ago,” said Gerry Cohen, former General Assembly special counsel. “For someone who isn’t a pretty strong party loyalist, it would be really impossible for them to get chosen.”
The North Carolina Democratic Party’s State Executive Committee is responsible for selecting electors. It does so with the intention of reflecting the people of color, young people, LGBTQ people, and veterans that make up the state’s population.
“What they were looking for was to make sure that all of the electors in North Carolina actually represented what the demographics of North Carolina actually are,” said Rebekah Whilden, a first-time at-large Democratic elector.
Along with Whilden, the Democratic Party’s selected electors are Lori Oxendine, Linda Gunter, Christopher Hardee, Fatimah Hickman, Emily Hogan, Mary Fox, Linda Baker, Thierry Wernaers, Karen Nance, Donna Luckey, Thomas Thomson, Antoinette Mingo, Valeria Levy, and Anthony Foxx.
The North Carolina GOP’s State Executive Committee is also responsible for selecting electors. The party did not respond to a request for comment about its presidential elector selection criteria or process.
The Republican Party’s selected electors are Thomas Hill, Edwin Gavin, David Wickersham, Angie Cutlip, Jonathan Fletcher, Tina Forsberg, Chauncey Lambeth, Susan Mills, Daniel Barry, Danny Overcash, Mark Delk, Melissa Taylor, Blake Williams, Michele Nix, and Michael Whatley.
None of the selected electors’ names show up on ballots. Instead, the names of the presidential and vice presidential candidates appear. But a vote for either major presidential candidate is really a vote for the electors of that candidate’s party. Whichever party garners the most votes sends its slate of electors to the Electoral College.
North Carolina election law sets the certification of election results for Nov. 24, three weeks after Election Day. That day, the state elections board meets at 11 a.m. and completes its canvass of the ballots, verifying that each ballot has been counted correctly. Afterwards, the board notifies the secretary of state, who notifies the governor, who issues a proclamation of the names of the electors and instructs electors to be present for the Electoral College.
Normally, the Electoral College process moves forward without a hitch. But there are fault lines in state and federal election law in danger of exposure.
“You can come up with all kinds of scenarios, and every contingency is not covered,” said Theodore Shaw, a professor at the UNC School of Law and a member of the National Task Force on Election Crises.
One fault line is a provision in the general statute that “the General Assembly and the Governor shall designate Electors in accord with their best judgment of the will of the electorate.”
According to the general statute, if Gov. Roy Cooper does not proclaim the names of the electors by Dec. 8 — due to legal challenges delaying election certification, for example — the General Assembly may appoint electors. If electors are not appointed by Dec. 13, Cooper appoints them.
Should Joe Biden win in North Carolina and his victory is contested long enough, the Republican-controlled General Assembly could appoint electors in subversion of the popular vote if, say, legislators take baseless accusations of wide-scale voter fraud made by the president to heart and use “their best judgment” to decide that “the will of the electorate” is not actually for Joe Biden.
Shaw says that such a scenario is improbable — not necessarily because of the clarity of election law or strength of the electoral system, but because of the inevitable political fallout.
“Can I tell you that there’s no chance that somebody might try to proceed in that manner in this extraordinary year? I can’t tell you that, but it’s unlikely,” Shaw said. “It would be a political mistake for the state legislature to do that because of the probable reaction. What you’re doing is invalidating the role of voters in choosing the president of the United States.”
However electors are selected, they will meet on Dec. 14 at noon at the old Hall of the House of Representatives in the State Capitol — like every state’s electors, but also unlike any other meeting of the Electoral College.
“Normally, there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance, and the room is full of people,” said Tim Crowley, a spokesperson for Marshall, whose office plans the logistics of the convening. “We’re planning to practice more safety protocols related to COVID. There’s a lot that could change between now or December, one way or another. We’re trying to be flexible and plan accordingly.”
In addition to the pandemic, the secretary of state’s office is planning in anticipation of a post-election climate so fraught that armed militia appear in Raleigh in December. The office is consulting with the State Capitol Police on security measures.
The prospect of violence lingers in the minds of some electors, though.
“Now that I am elected, I feel a lot of pressure,” Whilden said. “When [Trump] told the Proud Boys to be on standby, I was just like, ‘oh gosh.’”
As abound with vagaries as this election is, the U.S. Constitution is clear about one thing: when Congress meets in a joint session to count electoral votes on Jan. 6, the country must have election results. Until then, uncertainty awaits.
“It’s likely to get even more abnormal,” Shaw said. “This election, with everything that’s been going on, we could end up in some kind of uncharted territory.”
At top: the Electoral College presidential teller and secretary count votes for president at the convening of the Electoral College in 2016. Photo from UNC TV.