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Posts tagged as “The Vote”

Cast, but not always counted: What are provisional ballots?

By Michaela Towfighi and Kalley Huang

When one of Gunther Peck’s students told him that she had cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 election, he immediately worried. 

“I was like, ‘uh oh,’ and then I checked it out afterwards,” said the Duke history professor and voting rights activist. His search confirmed his fears. “She voted, and she had no voting history.”

Her provisional ballot was never accepted.  

Like Peck’s student, 1,084 Durhamites cast ballots that did not count in 2016, according to the Durham County Board of Elections. Some may still be under the impression that they participated in the election four years ago. 

“The worst thing is, a lot of people don’t even realize their vote didn’t count,” Peck said. “The pernicious part of it is that you’d have to check your voter history after the fact to see that your vote didn’t count.”

Provisional ballots are cast when a poll worker is unable to verify a voter’s eligibility when they check in at a polling place. It’s like an entrance to a party where it’s unclear whether or not you are on the guest list. Except in this case, the party is an election and getting in doesn’t mean your vote counts. Provisional ballots are held aside until county election officials investigate to determine whether or not the people who cast them are eligible to vote. 

Provisionals are more likely to be cast on Election Day, according to Patrick Gannon, a North Carolina State Board of Elections spokesperson. In the early in-person voting period, voters are able to register and cast a ballot on the same day. This process is called one-stop voting.  

However, on Election Day, if a voter is not registered with their name in the county poll book, a directory that tracks registered voters, they are presented with a provisional ballot. 

At the North Carolina Central University polling site, only 26 of the 91 provisional ballots cast in 2016 were counted in whole or in part — overall, less than 30%. 

Statewide, over 90% of provisional ballots cast in 2016 were counted in whole or in part.

“It’s absurd,” Peck said. “People waited hours to cast those provisional ballots. The wait time in 2016 was four and a half hours because everybody was casting provisional ballots. The line was melting.”

He attributed the “horrific” throw rate to a “perfect storm” — a partisan fight over counting students’ provisionals, lower voter enthusiasm leading to last-minute decisions to vote, poll workers not informing voters to vote at their assigned precinct, and students being confused about how to register and where to vote. 

N.C. Central has an early vote site that also serves as an Election Day precinct. All students can vote early there, but only on-campus residents may vote there on Election Day — a complex distinction that may have driven up the rate at which provisional ballots were cast and thrown out.

Reasons for Provisional Voting 

The North Carolina State Board of Elections gives a provisional ballot when a voter has no record of registration. Voters may also receive a provisional ballot if they do not have an acceptable form of ID, don’t have a recognized address, are at the incorrect voting precinct, or have already voted according to records. 

If a voter’s registration is removed from the county poll book, they are also presented with a provisional ballot. A voter’s registration can be canceled if they moved within the state, were convicted of a felony or were accidentally removed when lists were updated, among other reasons. 

Additionally, if the voting hours for a precinct are extended by the state board on Election Day, then all voters who cast a ballot during the extended hours must vote provisionally. This happened at eight Durham precincts in 2016, after technological issues delayed the voting process. 

Provisional ballots disproportionately affect younger and poorer voters, Peck said, because they are more likely to move in between elections. 

“If your parents have lived at the same address for 40 years, they’re never going to be asked to vote provisionally, because they’re fixed,” he said.

Although the throwing problem is particularly acute at N.C. Central, it is not isolated to the university. Young voters in general are more likely to cast provisional ballots, which exposes their vote to risk of rejection.

“Most people have never even heard of provisional ballots, so they don’t know the hazard or the danger in casting one,” Peck said.

Reviewing Provisional Ballots

When a voter casts their provisional votes, their ballot is separated from others and marked for later review. This review process happens after the election, when the county board meets to accept or reject all provisional ballots cast.  

In the review process, the board does research to validate unknown addresses, verify voters’ identities and find any indication that voters have attempted to register prior to Election Day. As officials search through the records of registration locations, such as the DMV, processing errors that prevented voters from entering the poll book could be unveiled, according to Gannon. Those unsaved by a mistake-proving document are less lucky. 

“If it’s obvious that the person did not make any attempt to register, and then cast a provisional on Election Day, that ballot would not be counted,” he said. 

In 2016, the Durham County Board of Elections approved 518 provisional ballots after their research confirmed that the voters were registered and eligible. 

In some cases though, provisional ballots are partially counted. This happens when a voter’s registration is eligible, but they voted outside of their designated precinct. In those cases, the voter’s ballot is counted for the races they are eligible to participate in, which may only include national and statewide races.  

“If the voter lives in Congressional district 13 and voted in Congressional district 4, the vote for Congress would not count,” the Durham County Board of Elections explained in its provisional ballot press release for the 2016 election 

During the 2016 election, 324 provisional ballots were partially accepted in Durham County. In total, just over half of the provisional ballots cast in Durham were either completely or partially counted.

Peck is more optimistic about this year’s provisional ballots. The state elections board has made an active effort to make sure as many ballots as possible are counted, he said. At N.C. Central, he added, administrators and students have encouraged the campus community to vote early, when voters have time to fix issues that may arise with their registration.

“It’s a combination of administrative problems, lack of knowledge, and also a system where you don’t know until after the fact, which is not deliberate voter suppression, but it is suppressing votes,” Peck said.

The vote: almost normal

I voted the other day and was struck that the experience was pretty impressive – and almost normal.

The impressive part: For all the claims about potential problems at the polls, I was impressed how organized everything was. I decided to vote that afternoon because the county website said there was only an eight-minute wait. (It ended up being more like five.) 

I got checked in quickly and directed to the ballot station. A worker there handed me a ballot, reminded me there were choices on both sides, and pointed me to the voting booths. I waited a moment for one to open and then voted just like I do every election. I put my ballot through the scanner, got a “NO BULL / I VOTED” sticker and left.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

The almost normal part: The hand sanitizer, the dots on the floor telling me where to stand, and the pen, which I got to keep. 

Still, for all the brouhaha about problems, it felt pretty routine (for, um, voting in a pandemic).

To explore this, our student journalists are publishing a series of stories we’re calling “The Vote.” The stories document the routine and not-so routine aspects of voting in 2020. The stories explain how ballot counting works, why you’re getting a free pen, how they wipe down the voting booths, what it’s like to vote by mail and vote curbside and what Derek Bowens, Durham’s finicky director of elections, plays to wake up on Election Day.

It’s an election we won’t forget. And we get to keep the pen.

Above photo of Durham voting stations by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

A wad of towels and a spray bottle to keep voters safe

Wearing a plastic face shield, a blue surgical mask, blue gloves and a white surgical gown that reaches down to her pink running shoes, Maria Quiros looks like many of the health workers battling the coronavirus in hospitals across the country. 

But this is no hospital. It’s the early voting site at Duke’s Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center. And Quiros’s job isn’t to heal the sick — it’s to protect thousands of voters from the virus.

Her outfit is a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic has transformed voting, usually no more risky than visiting the county library, into an activity that is potentially life-threatening.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

“It makes everything feel very surreal,” said Emma DeRose, a Duke senior and volunteer poll worker who helped wipe down the voting stations with disinfectant. “Obviously, we know a pandemic is going on. But I think Duke is kind of in a bubble in a way. We’ve had a pretty low case count, and it doesn’t really feel that present. And then I think you get to the polling center, and you’re seeing these people, including myself, just all decked out, and it’s like ‘woah.’”

Voting, like going to the grocery store or to school, has become a stroll through a minefield. And, since early voting started in North Carolina on Oct. 15, Quiros, DeRose and others have kept voters safe with a wad of paper towels and a spray bottle of disinfectant. 

According to an Aug. 14 memo from the North Carolina State Board of Elections, workers at voting sites are required to perform “ongoing and routine environmental cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas” with an EPA-approved disinfectant for COVID-19.

On a recent Friday, Quiros stood at the left side of the voting room in Karsh. She had her dark hair in a bun, and her eyes scanned the booths. As soon as a voter left a booth, Quiros scurried over and began cleaning. 

She started by wiping the bottom of the polling booth. Next, she cleaned one side, and then the other, finishing with a horizontal swipe along the front edge.  

While waiting, Quiros also directed voters to empty booths or helped them follow the blue arrows to the spot where they could scan their ballots — she’s both the cleanup crew and stage director. 

It’s tedious work, but Quiros is staying positive. She’s confident that the polling place is safe for voters.

“Because we are taking care of them,” she said.

Quiros said she has been working 12 hours a day since Oct. 15. She has help. There are 10 to 15 poll workers during each shift, and these workers rotate between various positions, from ballot tabulator to sanitation worker, said DeRose, who was greeting people and handing out pens. 

“I think just us being very thorough with the cleaning provides a sense of comfort,” DeRose said. 

This Friday afternoon, Quiros was accompanied by Kate Young, 72, who had started her cleaning duty at 1:30 p.m. 

“You get used to it,” she said, referring to the protective gear she was wearing. “This is what we have to do now.” 

She has volunteered as a poll worker for four years, and she said this voting site is far better run than the one at the Devil’s Den in 2016. 

“It was a madhouse,” she said, chuckling. 

Uncertainty looms over this election, but Young isn’t worried. She prefers to focus on helping in small ways, a lesson she has learned from her years with the Peace Corps, End Hunger in Durham, and other activist work.

“You do what you can,” she said.

At top: Poll volunteer Emma DeRose wipes down a voting booth after a voter leaves. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street journal

‘I voted’ pens are an odd souvenir of the pandemic

When it was time to buy pens for the 2020 election, the North Carolina State Board of Elections went big:  6 million. Well, 5,909,820 to be exact. That’s enough to cover 520 miles and weigh more than six school buses.  

The pens “minimize the potential spread of the coronavirus because the voter will be the only person to touch their own pen,” said Noah Grant, a spokesman for the board of elections. Also, they’re a souvenir of an election you’ll never forget.

They’re paid for by a $1 million grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a pro-democracy group funded by tech companies and foundations.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

Grant helped design the retractable, metallic “I voted in the 2020 election!” pens. But not all early voters got one because the big order arrived a few days late. 

Archie Services in Greensboro, winner of the state’s bid for the cheapest pen, had just under a month to fulfill and deliver the pens to over 85 sites across the state.

Durham voter, David Lorimer, shows off his free pen that he says he’ll use in the future. 

The day before early voting began, Brent Archie, owner of Archie Services, had to take matters into his own hands when he realized that some polling sites wouldn’t get the custom pens in time. 

As large shipments of pens sat lost in a Chicago warehouse, he and his team desperately wiped their Charlotte warehouses clean of other types of pens. When that wasn’t enough, Archie drove to his Atlanta warehouses, covered over 1,200 miles in 18 hours, and personally helped deliver 180,000 backup pens the night before early voting began on Oct. 15.

“I really wanted everyone to have that pen the first day,” he said. Still, he was disappointed the first voters didn’t get the souvenir version. 

“A Bic is a Bic, but it’s not our voting pen,” he said. 

Sites eventually received the thicker, hourglass-shaped pens. But it’s hard to please everyone. 

Durham voter Amady Barrie wished he had that black backup pen instead. 

“Oddly enough, when I was writing with it, I was thinking, ‘How come every pen isn’t like a sleek Bic pen?’” said Barrie. 

With only five days left until election day, 3 million North Carolinians have already voted in-person. That leaves about 3 million pens. Is that enough to cover the rest of early voting and Election Day? State officials believe it is. If not, the state board of elections is prepared to dip into federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, according to Grant. If a polling center runs out of pens, the site can request additional ones or change to the process of collecting and sanitizing pens for reuse.

At some locations, the pen replaces the popular “I voted” sticker. Many counties cannot afford the transmission-reducing sticker dispenser used in Durham, nor do they have the spare election workers to cut rolls of stickers into singles, said Grant.

Durham, however, is still giving stickers – a custom version that says “No bull, I voted.” 

On Tuesday, voters left the early voting site at the Durham County Main Library with the sticker and pen. 

Bianca Evans, a self-proclaimed “pen lady,” said she was excited to receive one and plans on using it “until it stops working.” 

Others were not so enthusiastic. 

“It’s just a pen,” said voter Donta Cash.

Grant views the pen in a larger context. “It’s a memento to how much our world has changed in 2020.”

Durham voter David Lorimer shows off his free pen. Photo by Bella Caracta | The 9th Street Journal

My adventures with curbside voting

Elections remind me of ABC’s “The Bachelor.” Each season is billed as the “most dramatic ever.”  

And sure enough, a fiercely contested election in a global pandemic is, of course, the “most dramatic ever.” For me, it’s also my first chance to vote for a president. I knew it would be memorable, but it took on more urgency when I was quarantined three weeks before Election Day.  

That foiled my voting plans.  Until Oct. 31, the last day of early voting, I would not be allowed to enter the polls. If I contracted the coronavirus myself, my quarantine could extend through Nov. 3, Election Day.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

I did not want to take a risk with a mail-in ballot arriving in time. The solution: vote early, but do it curbside.  According to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, voters are eligible to vote from their car due to age or disability. You also qualify if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or are at risk of getting it. 

So last Wednesday afternoon, my roommate drove us to the Karsh Alumni & Visitors Center at Duke, one of 14 early voting locations in Durham County.  

We pulled up to the  “curbside voting here” sign and were greeted by Kate, a poll worker who wore a fluorescent yellow jacket and a blue cloth mask.  

I sat in the passenger seat as Kate asked why we would like to vote curbside and explained that we would have to sign an affidavit asserting that we could not go inside.  

“I do solemnly swear or affirm that I am a registered voter in precinct 3…that because of age or physical disability I am unable to enter the voting place to vote in person without physical assistance…” it began.   

We verbally agreed. Kate then took our names and went inside to print a document that certified our name and address, and bring out our ballots.  

She returned moments later with both documents in a purple plastic sleeve.  

She then explained the application and ballot – sign here and here, read through all contests and fill in the bubbles, flip the ballot over and do the same on the other side.  

We each checked our name and address again, and signed the affidavit.  

And so I sat in the passenger seat of my roommate’s car with my mask on and voted in my first presidential election.   

Kate stood off to the side of the car while we filled out the ballots.  When we finished, we waved to her to collect them. Unlike typical in-person voting, we could not feed our ballots into the tabulator machine ourselves. We’d have to trust that Kate would take care of that.  

Our reward was the same as other early voters: a metallic retractable Board of Elections “I voted in the 2020 election! ”pen) and the delightfully Durham “No Bull, I Voted” sticker.  The whole process took 32 minutes. 

It wasn’t the most dramatic election ever, but it was very much on brand with the surprises of 2020.

Reporter Michaela Towfighi talks with an elections worker at the early voting site at the Karsh Alumni & Visitors Center at Duke. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal 

The count: behind the scenes in Durham’s vote tally

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.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina

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. 

Provisional ballots

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:

  1. The board reviews the number of provisional ballots cast and determines whether or not each registration was legitimate so the vote can count. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 

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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. 

Sources: 

  • Patrick Gannon, public information office for the North Carolina State Board of Elections 
  • Durham County Board of Elections 

‘The first one out there’: How Durham’s elections chief gets ready for the biggest day of the year

Every Election Day, Derek Bowens wakes up and plays the most motivational song he can think of: CNN’s Election Night theme.

The song provides an early-morning jolt that gets the Durham County elections director ready for the busy day ahead. The booming drums, violin swells and electric guitar riffs follow Bowens as he springs out of bed, brushes his teeth, and heads to the office just before 5 a.m. If there’s one thing that riles him up, it’s the rhythm of democracy.

“It’s so great,” he said of the song. “It gets me moving.”

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

Not that Bowens needs a news theme to get going. Fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, he manages precinct officials and elections administrators, oversees voter registrations and absentee ballot mailings, supervises 14 early voting sites across the county, and prepares for the most important day of his year. On Nov. 3, how well he handles those details — from ensuring that over 800 poll workers take their places at 57 precincts to resolving potential problems like jammed ballot machines or power outages — could have a small but significant effect on the confidence and maybe even the outcome of the biggest election of his lifetime.

He loves his work because it matters.

“I see it as the bedrock of our democracy,” he said. “That importance should be met with a level of intensity.”

“A multi-ring circus”

Bowens sweats the small details. He knows election law inside and out, so much so that his employees joke about how easily he catches the errors they’ve missed.

“I had one staff say, ‘I don’t want to call Derek over to solve this, because the minute he comes over, he’ll find the problem instantly,’” Bowens laughed.

Derek Bowens checks the distance between voting stations. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

He’s relatively new to Durham, having arrived from New Hanover County in 2016, and his colleagues say the office is more efficient now under his leadership. According to Philip Lehman, chairman of the Durham board of elections, there were 792 mistakes of various degrees in the 2016 primary election, which took place before Bowens arrived. In this year’s primary, there were eight.

“Derek is running a multi-ring circus,” Lehman said. “But he’s always ahead of the game.”

In the tight-knit world of election administrators, reputations are earned on the little stuff. As director of elections in New Hanover, home to Wilmington, Bowens became known for his well-organized warehouses, where necessities from ballot machines to “I Voted” stickers are kept. 

But don’t look for signs of organization on his desk. Papers are scattered across the cherry wood — calendars, time sheets, fliers, and reusable paper towels (he wanted to see if they could be used to sanitize polling places). 

“They say organized people have the messiest desks,” he deadpanned.

Colleagues say he never loses his cool. When a problem arises, he goes into solutions mode, turning his eyes to the sky. His employees know that when he lowers his eyes, he’ll have a plan. 

“There was never a moment where he seemed panicked or overwhelmed,” said Samuel Gedman, former deputy director of elections. “He simply lays out what needs to be done. In this business, that’s huge.”

“We feel confident that things are under control”

In a conversation with Lehman, Bowens once gave his top three priorities in life: 

Faith, family, and elections.

Elections appear to be a newer passion. Growing up in Wilmington, he lived in an apartment in the projects with his single mother, sister, and two brothers. 

His mother, who worked at a preschool, tried to expose her children to positive experiences while shielding them from the drugs and violence of the inner city. Eventually, she married Bowens’ stepfather, the owner of a local painting company who built the family a house in the suburbs when Bowens was 12 years old.

But the years of poverty had made their mark. Bowens wanted to keep climbing up.

“I had a decision to make, to be better than my circumstances,” he said.

He was a good student in high school, a self-described nerd. He was president of the debate team and won a “principal’s choice” award, accomplishments that helped him earn grants to subsidize his college, which he split between UNC Charlotte, community college, and UNC Wilmington. He was determined to graduate with honors. 

He wanted to give back to his mother.

“My mom is very important to me,” he said, his voice softening. “I want to be in a position where I can do everything for her, so she doesn’t have to worry about a thing.”

The 2008 presidential election was a turning point in his self-realization, when he saw a Black man on the ballot for the first time. 

In a necessarily nonpartisan job, Bowens doesn’t talk politics. He says he doesn’t have a stake in who wins the elections he oversees, “or care, for that matter.” Still, Barack Obama’s candidacy and subsequent presidency rocked Bowens to his core.

“It was something that I could never fathom,” he said. “It was the first time I felt like I could do something in this country.”

After graduating college in 2011, he got a job as a New Hanover County elections specialist in Wilmington and quickly ascended the ranks. By February 2015, he was the county’s director of elections — at age 27. 

Bowens is now 32, significantly younger than many of his employees. But Deputy Director Brenda Baker says he has an old soul.

“He could be any age,” she said. “He’s very mature, a methodical thinker, and a great problem solver. It’s impressive.”

Lehman said Bowen is “the kind of guy that, when he talks, you listen. With his leadership, we feel confident that things are under control.”

Finding belonging in Durham

Bowens says any worries about a chaotic election are unfounded.

“I have every confidence in our ability to execute a great election here in Durham,” he said. 

“Derek is running a multi-ring circus,” says Durham elections board Chair Philip Lehman. “But he’s always ahead of the game.” Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

More worrisome to him is the threat of voter suppression, which has historically disproportionately affected Black and Latino voters. In September, President Trump encouraged North Carolina citizens to “watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing” at the polls, pushing misinformation about the prevalence of voter fraud while seeming to encourage voter intimidation. Later that month, his son Donald Trump Jr. released a video calling for supporters to “enlist” in an “army for Trump.”

At the mention of voter intimidation, Bowens’ jaw clenched. 

“We’re doing everything we can to create a safe voting environment in Durham,” he said. “The issue of voter intimidation is very important, and it certainly won’t be tolerated.”

For years, Durham County has dispatched unarmed security guards to polling places to protect voters from instances of intimidation. Two weeks ago, the North Carolina State Board of Elections told elections officials that law enforcement could not be assigned to a polling site. But Bowens appealed the decision and got Durham’s policy reapproved.

In addition to the unarmed security guards, if a precinct in Durham does see an instance of voter intimidation, “I’ll be the first one out there, I can tell you that,” Bowens said.

Durham’s approach to voter suppression is largely an expression of its racial and ethnic diversity. The county’s “cultural melting pot” allows Bowens to feel at home here, which he said wasn’t always the case in Wilmington.

“There were some difficulties there, in terms of feeling like I belonged,” he said. “In Durham, I see other people that look like me. I feel like I belong.”

Durham elections officials welcomed his arrival in 2016, after years of turnover in an office “flying by the seat of its pants,” according to Lehman. Before Bowens, they had no written manual of office procedures. Within months, he wrote a manual. 

During Baker’s interview for the position of deputy director, her first impression of Bowens was of a “pretty serious and very precise person.” At first, she worried he would be a tough boss.

But after 5 p.m., when the phones finally stop ringing and the office closes for the night, his employees see him at his most comfortable.  

He takes off his shoes and wanders the office in his socks. He whistles to himself and blasts Michael Jackson’s greatest hits from his phone. When Gedman worked in the office, they’d turn on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. 

Bowens says unwinding together at the end of a long day helps the office build comradery.

“We spend more time together than we do with our own families,” he said.

He doesn’t see his own family much these days. He says his wife, Andrea, doesn’t always agree with his commitment to the job, “but she understands the importance of it,” he said. 

He misses his 3-year-old daughter, Harper, most of all. When trying to describe her, Bowens shook his head in awe.

“No words,” he said. “I just love being a papa.” He wishes he could spend more time with her.

“But this is our democracy,” he said. “It requires sacrifice.”

My adventures with mail-in voting

A week after I mailed my registration form to the State Board of Elections, I still hadn’t received my voter card. I looked myself up in the North Carolina Voter Search and saw that I was still listed under my old address. I was starting to get nervous…did my form get lost in the mail?

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

That was just one of several worries and speed bumps that I encountered in my weeks-long effort to mail my ballot to the Durham County Board of Elections. In an ordinary year, that would be a routine act. But with President Donald Trump repeatedly attacking absentee voting and calling this “the greatest rigged election in history,” I was worried: Would my ballot get to the elections office in time to count?

My adventure began Sept. 22 with a seemingly easy change of address. But when I didn’t show up in the database with the new address, I called the Durham County Board of Elections. After waiting on hold for about 30 minutes, the friendly lady who answered the phone told me she couldn’t see my new address in the system and that I should just submit another registration form. 

This time, though, I should send it to Durham, where it would end up anyway, she said. Mailing it to the state board prolonged the process and invited opportunity for error. 

* * *

She also suggested I email or drop it off in person rather than mail it. She said my form was less likely to get lost that way, an assurance that wasn’t the most reassuring since my goal was voting by mail. 

Besides Trump’s comments, which fact-checkers have consistently said are false or unfounded, the controversy of mail-in voting was heightened in the summer when Trump’s Postmaster General Louis DeJoy implemented a series of cost-cutting measures, including eliminating overtime for mail delivery, reducing post office hours and removing mailboxes. 

The changes have not only been faulted for delaying mail delivery and potentially results for the upcoming election, but also threatening to disenfranchise voters whose mail-in ballots do not arrive on time. 

As a result, surveys show reduced confidence in mail-in voting, particularly by Republicans. Still, a record number of voters will rely on mail-in voting this year. Nearly 40% of the state electorate will vote absentee in North Carolina, said Damon Circosta, chair of the State Board of Elections. But with all this fuss about the ballots and the Postal Service, many of us worry if our ballots would make it by the Nov. 12 deadline. 

* * *

I took the advice of the friendly lady at the Durham County office and decided to scan and email my second voter registration form to the county, along with my absentee ballot application.

 I did have to ask my professor to print the form for me, however, because not only do I not have a printer at home, but I ran out of my allotted printing money from Duke this month. I wondered if lack of printer access is a barrier for some voters who may want to vote by mail. 

Three days later, I looked myself up once again and saw that I was correctly registered under my current address. Yay! (I was only listed once, though I sent in my registration form twice. I guess they either disregarded the other form or never received it.) 

Now I was ready to vote. I went on BallotTrax, an online tool to track the status of an absentee ballot. I was pretty excited to be able to know the whereabouts of my ballot, rather than simply mailing it off to the Ethosphere. 

But alas, Ballottrax could not find my information in their system. Weird, I sent my absentee ballot request in the same email as my voter registration.

I called the state (wait time: about an hour) and finally was told I should call my local elections board. 

When I called Durham (wait time: 30 minutes), the representative told me that my absentee request was denied because the last four digits of my Social Security number on my request form did not match their records. 

However, I verified my Social Security number with her and what I wrote on my form was indeed correct. We never figured out why it didn’t match. 

The representative then told me to take a photo of my Social Security card, blur out the numbers except the last four digits (I thought about voters who may not know how to do this) and email it to the county board, which I completed on Oct. 7. 

I wasn’t terribly worried. I still had almost three weeks until the ballot request deadline. Still, given that I mailed my first voter registration form 16 days earlier, I thought I would have my ballot by now. 

I called the county board again two days later to check on my request. They said that my ballot was mailed out two days earlier. Finally! 

* * *

I set up BallotTrax to send me text and email notifications. I would know when my ballot was on the move and when it got accepted. 

On Oct. 10, I got a blank absentee ballot request form and a letter from the county about the Social Security snafu. But I decided it didn’t reflect my current status, so I tossed it into recycling and took my dog to do her business. 

Three days later, after a long day of classes and Zoom meetings, I opened my mailbox and was thrilled when I saw a big envelope stuffed inside.

I hurried upstairs and tore it open. Inside were the ballot, a return envelope, two sheets of instructions and the distinctive Durham sticker of a bull and the slogan No Bull I Voted. I geeked out about the sticker and wanted to show it off on social media, but I felt that it wouldn’t be right until I had actually voted. 

The next day, I enlisted my friend (and 9th Street colleague) Rebecca Torrence to be my witness (every absentee ballot must have one). Rebecca sat next to me while I danced in my chair, filled in the ovals for my candidates and squeaked, “I’m voting, I’m voting!” 

Rebecca then wrote her name, address and signature. Between then and the next morning when I mailed out my vote, I checked the ballot at least three times to make sure that I filled it out correctly. 

Whew! It took more than three weeks for me to register and cast my mail-in ballot. I’m grateful that mail-in voting is a viable option for voters who cannot go to polls because of COVID-19 or other reasons. But after going through the hassles, I would have preferred to vote early in person, which not only would have been faster, but also would have saved me from finding a printer, spending hours on the phone and generally worrying that my mail could get lost in transit. 

BallotTrax was helpful in giving me some peace of mind, though I did not get notifications for two stages of the mail-in voting process that I was promised (inbound to the county board and when it was received). 

But I got the one that mattered. On Oct. 17, two days after dropping my ballot into the blue box in front of Brueggar’s Bagels on 9th Street, I received a text through BallotTrax that my ballot had been accepted.

I carefully stuck my No Bull I Voted sticker onto my coffee tumbler, proud of myself for voting in my second presidential election, ever.

9th Street Journal reporter Rose Wong with her “I voted” sticker.

Photos by Rose Wong | The 9th Street Journal