Story by Michaela Towfighi; illustrations by Sofia Zymnis
Uncertainty has been a common thread in our lives since March. But if there is one thing certain about holding an election in these strange and confusing times, it is that there are over 7 million registered voters in North Carolina and the state has a plan to count their ballots.
Regardless whether votes are cast by mail, at early voting sites or at the polls on Nov. 3, counting ballots is no simple feat. It is a complex process with many steps of verification.
The first three pieces fit together to make up the unofficial count of ballots in Durham County. This tally can not be released until 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 3, but, as ballots trickle in, the machines know the count well ahead of the deadlines.
Still, it’s all somewhat tentative until Nov. 24. That’s when the North Carolina State Board of Elections convenes to finish their audit and verify ballots – a multiday process known as canvassing which starts the day after the election – before releasing the final tally.
Mail-In Voting — The count is underway (but no one knows who’s ahead)
To handle the thousands of absentee votes received ahead of Nov. 3, the Durham County Board of Elections has met since Sept. 29 to review the ballots. All meeting dates and times are pre-approved and published on the county board website. Once mail-in ballots are approved, they are fed into an electronic tabulator machine, where the votes are counted but the results are not released. Simply put, the machine knows the vote count but officials do not until polls close on Nov. 3.
At each meeting, the board has two tasks: approve ballots and begin the count. Once the ballot is approved, meaning it has all components filled out including the required witness signature, then the board can remove it from its envelope and place it in the tabulation machine. The machine counts the vote, and stores the result on a memory card in the machine.
Once polls close on Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m., the board can remove the memory cards from the tabulators and print the results. Then these results can be released to the public.
Mail-In Ballot Deadlines:
Oct. 27 – Voters must request a mail-in ballot by 5 p.m..
Oct. 15 to Oct. 31 – Voters can drop off their mail-in ballots at any early voting site in Durham County.
Nov. 3 – The last day voters can drop off their mail-in ballots at the Durham County Board of Elections office by 5 p.m.. Voters who are returning their ballots by mail must have them postmarked by Nov. 3. As long as ballots are sent by then, they can be accepted through Nov. 12 (although the date is still subject to change as a result of ongoing litigation).
Early Voting — The count begins for in-person voting
You don’t have to wait until Nov. 3 to catch glimpses of Durham voters sporting their “No bull, I voted” stickers. Since Oct. 15, people have been able to visit 14 early voting locations in the county. They’ll be open until Oct. 31.
Like mail-in voting, this is a form of absentee voting and the ballots are processed as they come in. These ballots are also put through an electronic ballot scanner, with results stored in the tabulator’s memory card. At the end of each day, the physical ballots are organized by a color coded bagging system. As with mail-in ballots, only the machines know the vote count.
Keeping tabs: When the polls close at the end of each early voting day, the ballots are tallied on-site by the tabulation machine and then a one-stop daily reconciliation form must be filled out. This reconciliation form is essentially a daily audit that makes sure every ballot is accounted for.
The reconciliation form includes:
- Total number of unused ballots the site had on hand at the beginning of the day
- The daily start count of ballots on the tabulator machine (which must match the end number from the previous day)
- The daily ending count
- The daily number of ballots cast
- Daily “one-stop” applications
- Every voter completes a one-stop application when they vote at an early in-person site. The application means that the voter verified their name and address and provided a signature to assure this information.
- Laptop numbers and number of voters processed on each laptop from the site
- Laptops are used at each early voting site to look up voters registration and print the one-stop applications.
- Write in ballots
- Spoiled ballots
- Machine-rejected ballots
- Absentee ballots dropped off on site that day
- Provisional ballots
- Total number of registration updates received that day
- Same day registrations processed and reviewed for the day
- Ending unused ballot count
Color coding to separate the ballots
Next comes a color coding system to deliver the ballots to the county elections office. There are five colored poly bags used – white, blue, yellow, black and red.
The colored bags, along with other forms, are dropped off at the county board of elections office at the end of each day.
- White bags: Accepted ballots
- Yellow bags: Machine-rejected ballots
- Black bags: Provisional ballots
- Red bags: Spoiled ballots
- Blue bags: Absentee vote by mail ballots that were dropped off at the early voting site
Election Day Voting — Completing the count
On Nov. 3, tens of thousands of voters will visit 57 precincts in Durham, casting their ballot, leaving with the pen they used to cast their ballot (a new safety precaution) and a voting sticker. When polls close at 7:30 pm, the tabulation memory card from each machine will be delivered to the county office. Now the counting gets real.
Once polls close, precinct officials can remove the memory card from each tabulation machine. Next, they drive the cards back to the Durham elections office, where each card is inserted into a computer and the votes are read.
At this time, the memory cards from absentee voting – both mail-in and the in-person early voting sites – are read and released as well. The early absentee count will likely be the first results announced on Election Day, according to Patrick Gannon, the public information officer for the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
Results will be publicized, but these tallies are unofficial.
When a voter attempts to cast a ballot but the precinct worker is unable to verify their registration, that voter is allowed to vote with a provisional ballot. This ballot means that the vote will not count until further research is done to verify the individuals registration. After polls close on Nov. 3, precinct officials are also tasked with another job – reporting the number of provisional ballots cast that day in their location.
By 12 p.m. on Nov. 5, the Durham County Board of Elections must publish the total number of provisional ballots cast in Durham and begin reviewing the cases. During the county canvass, the board of elections conducts research to verify a voter’s registration and determines whether or not the ballot should count.
The Canvass – Making the final count
Part 1 – The County Board Canvass
The tallies – and the winners – are unofficial until the Durham County Board of Elections meets on Nov. 13 to finalize results. In this “canvassing” process, board members verify that votes have been counted and tabulated correctly over the course of 10 days, before authenticating the official election results.
The canvass is the official, and presumably final, count. One caveat in a chaotic year: the meeting could be delayed depending on lawsuits or contests about election results. But at the canvass meeting, regardless of its date, the board signs off on their certification of the election results in Durham.
In the 10 days between Nov. 3 and the Nov. 13 meeting there are a few things the Durham County Board of Elections must do before the count is official:
- The board reviews the number of provisional ballots cast and determines whether or not each registration was legitimate so the vote can count.
- The board continues to accept and process absentee mail-in ballots, as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3. The board can accept and count all ballots received through Nov. 12.
- The board conducts a series of audits to ensure that there are no missing ballots and that tabulation machines were not tampered with.
- One audit involves a recount of two precincts, selected at random by the state board. The county board must run the ballots from the selected precincts through the tabulator again to ensure that the count is the same.
- There are several other audits the county can choose to conduct. Two examples are:
- Ensuring that the number of people who check in at the polls roughly matches the number of ballots cast. There is a margin of error here, as there are situations where a voter checks in but does not cast a ballot. This means the numbers do not always match but should be close.
- Selecting a portion of ballots to count by hand. This hand-eye count is then compared to the machine tabulated total.
Once these processes are complete, the board meets at 11 a.m. on Nov. 13.
At this meeting the board fills out an abstract sheet which summarizes the official vote count. Three copies of this abstract are made – one for the county board to keep, one is delivered to the Superior Court clerk of the county and the last is sent to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
Part 2 – The State Board of Elections Canvass
Three weeks after Election Day, it is the role of the state board of elections to provide a final count of all counties and certify votes for the state. This happens in a meeting on Nov. 24 when the board completes its own canvass. The board is also able to complete its own audit if members want to further authenticate the results.
At this meeting, the board summarizes all official results for each elected office on the ballot in a document known as an abstract.
This official state abstract is then duplicated. The state board keeps one, while the other is sent to the Secretary of State, who is responsible for announcing the results to the public.
- Patrick Gannon, public information office for the North Carolina State Board of Elections
- Durham County Board of Elections