Nash County poll worker Sydney Winter looks over voter information during the March 2020 primary election in Rocky Mount. Calvin Adkins / Wmforo

Over 248,000 absentee-by-mail ballots have been returned to, and accepted by, the 100 county boards of election around the state. Today, each county begins processing those ballots.

Concern exists around the country about how long it will take to count all the by-mail ballots after Election Day, potentially delaying when the nation will have a clear winner in the presidential race.

That will not be an issue with North Carolina.

The General Assembly passed a law in June that included a provision allowing county boards of election to begin processing absentee-by-mail ballots five weeks before Election Day.

These meetings are public, meaning that county boards of election will have to allow observers while they accept and reject the by-mail ballots.

The transparency of this process is “almost a component of election security,” according to Tomas Lopez, the director of the voting rights group Democracy NC. Transparency leads to security because you want people to be able to trust the process, Lopez said. It’s also a chance to right any wrongs early on in the process.

Democracy NC will have observers at county boards of elections around the state, while others will be watching the process online. Due to COVID-19, counties are allowing a limited number of people in as observers, and several of the larger counties are also offering the option to watch the process on a video call.

“We've got 100 county boards,” Lopez said. “Each of them has its own director. Each has its own board. And, you know, that's a lot of ground to cover where each of them are making really important decisions over whose votes get counted.”

At these meetings, each county’s five-member board of elections will vote to accept or reject the absentee-by-mail ballots they have received as of 5 p.m. Monday. The counties do not have to get through their entire backlog of ballots and, in addition to the weekly Tuesday meetings, can schedule more sessions to process the glut of by-mail voting seen in North Carolina.

Voters this year have already requested more by-mail ballots than in 2016, and some counties already have tens of thousands of ballots to process.

There will not be any vote counting at these meetings. Counting votes cannot happen before Election Day. Election boards and county staff will be preparing the ballots so that on Election Day, counting is as easy as pressing a button.

This means that by the time polls close on election night, North Carolina will have already counted every by-mail ballot returned to county boards of election by 5 p.m. the day before the election, along with all early voting and Election Day votes.

That will account for the vast majority of the total votes cast, and only the tightest races will be affected by the remaining votes that will be counted 10 days after Election Day, on Nov. 13.

The cumulative nature of this process makes it important for election observers to start paying attention now, Lopez said.

“Being on top of it as it goes on allows us to make sure that voters are actually getting the chance to cure their ballots, have their ballots counted in a way that they should,” Lopez said.

What you will see

Any person who wishes to watch the board meetings should be able to do so, according to open meeting laws and a memo from the N.C. State Board of Elections. The only limitations are if the viewing area is full and the county is not streaming the meeting online.

The chair of the board will open the meeting, then will likely ask the county’s director of elections for a summary of the ballots received so far.

County elections staff members sort all the ballots before they are brought to the elections board. The staff will recommend that the board vote to accept some ballots, reject others, or there may be a few more special cases to consider.

The board members will review the ballot recommendations, then vote on which ballots to accept and reject. This will often take place in a series of votes, given the sheer volume that counties are dealing with.

Election watchers like Lopez and Marian Lewin, vice president of the N.C. League of Women Voters, will be watching for the discretionary decisions the county boards make.

“Vote-by-mail absentee voting is a little bit of a work in progress,” Lewin said. “They're inventing it as they go. And they're resolving problems, trying to resolve problems as they crop up.”

The LWV has 18 chapters in North Carolina, Lewin said, and each will be watching local county boards of elections meetings.

“A lot of decisions are made at board of elections meetings that are not necessarily reported in other arenas,” Lewin said. “And we really want to know what's going on with elections so that we can communicate to the public.”

Elections boards will likely discuss “curing” ballots. That is a new process to North Carolina this year, as a result of a lawsuit brought by Democracy NC. Absentee-by-mail ballots require voters and a witness to fill out sections on the ballot envelope. In the past, when voters or their witnesses failed to fill something out, the ballot was rejected.

Now, voters will have a chance to correct those errors and confirm that the ballot is theirs, though the details of how this will work are still a subject of litigation.

After ballots are accepted, county elections staff will remove the ballots from their envelopes and begin scanning them. The scanner keeps track of the votes cast on each ballot and how many ballots are processed. On Election Day, the memory cards from each scanner will be plugged into an election computer to count all the votes.

If there is any indication that votes are being counted at any time before Election Day, something has gone wrong.

Different counties have different voting machine technology. Small and midsize counties will have to scan the by-mail ballots one at a time into voting machines. Large counties have machines that can read a few hundred ballots a minute.

Some ballots will not scan. Since these ballots went through the mail twice and were in voters’ homes, they may be wrinkled, bent, and have coffee rings or other household stains on them.

These ballots will be duplicated by teams of three elections staff members. They will copy all the votes onto a new ballot, scan it in and store both the new and old ballots.

Once this is done, the board members will vote to close the meeting.

For online meetings, open meetings law allows counties to charge $25 to each listener (if your county charges you, Wmforo wants to know about it). Frayda Bluestein, professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, said this is not common.

Watching these meetings is important for regular voters, Lewin said, not just political operatives and election observers.

“They need to know that their ballots are being handled in a respectful, safe, and transparent manner so that they know when they sent their ballot into the board of elections, that it isn't going into some black hole someplace, that it is being processed,” Lewin said. “And it is being counted, and it is being safeguarded.”

Click HERE for broadcast script.

Click HERE for Spanish script.

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Jordan Wilkie is a former Report for America corps member and former reporter at Wmforo. To reach the newsroom, email us at [email protected].

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