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Q&A: Why voters in NC should trust the state's elections process

North Carolina with red and blue in the background
NPR
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North Carolinians have been casting votes for the 2022 midterm elections since mid-September with the processing of mail-in ballots. And they've been voting in person at one-stop sites since October 20. Along with the variety of ways votes are collected in North Carolina, there are specific, painstaking administrative steps for counting and reporting those votes. And it's a lack of understanding about this process that can often lead to misinformation and skepticism about election results.

I sat down to discuss the elections process in North Carolina with Chris Cooper, a Robert Lee Madison Distinguished Professor and Director of the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University.

NOTE: This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

RUSTY: Let's start by laying out the variety of ways North Carolinians can cast ballots and get their votes collected.

COOPER: There are three primary ways.

One is by voting in mail, which technically is absentee-by-mail, is the way we refer to it in North Carolina, so you essentially request a ballot, they send you the ballot, you get a couple of witnesses on that, you return it to your local county board of elections, and then your ballot is processed and accepted. And then it's counted, later on, on Election Day.

Then, there's the one-stop voting — most people refer to that as in-person early voting — so that's when you show up, you have to be in your county but you don't have to show up at a certain polling place in a certain precinct. So, if you live in Wake County anywhere in Wake County will do, you show up there, you cast your vote. It feels a lot like Election Day voting but the lines are shorter and you can kind of do it whenever you want to before the election within the period.

The last way, of course, is Election Day voting. The one that we're used to, we call it Election Day. In some ways it's really Election Deadline, right? It's a day to get all this stuff done, it's sort of the last day there is, it's not the only day for the election. What we've seen in North Carolina over time and in most states is that Election Day voting has become a smaller and smaller proportion overall votes accepted in our state and other states as well.

RUSTY: For anybody casting one of these one-stop, in-person, early voting ballots it should be noted that is a form of absentee voting. It's not mail-in, it's in-person but it's absentee because you're absent on Election Day, is that right?

COOPER: That's exactly right. In a technical sense we have two types of absentee voting in North Carolina: we have absentee-by-mail, which most people just call mail voting; and then we have this absentee, one-stop, which most people call in-person, early voting.

How people vote is becoming more polarized

RUSTY: With more and more people electing to vote in person at one-stop sites or mail in their ballots, and fewer and fewer people coming on Election Day, what are we seeing overall in terms of trends?

COOPER: We're seeing more people vote by mail. We're seeing more people vote one-stop. This, you know, this kind of early voting period. (The election in) 2020 is, of course, a big asterisk in this, right? So that was right in the midst of the pandemic, everybody's wearing a mask, we didn't want to be in public and so those numbers change dramatically in 2020.

In 2020, Election Day voting was actually the least popular way to cast a vote of the three. Mail-in voting skyrocketed, one-stop voting was again very popular, Election Day the least. What we're seeing in 2022 is something in between the previous trends of what we saw in 2020.

So, for example, mail-in voting is nowhere near the kind of levels we saw in 2020 in the sort of worst of the pandemic but it's still over twice as popular as it was in 2018. In other words, same-day had over two times as many people cast and had their mail ballots accepted as did in 2018. So it seems like some people tried it in 2020 for the first time and like Mikey and the cereal, they liked it and so they kept doing it.

RUSTY: Do we see any data that indicates preferences along party affiliation lines?

COOPER: Yes. And in some ways it's a little worrisome, right? So, look, it used to be that mail-in voting was a Republican thing to do. You used to see more mail-in votes, in particular, cast by Republicans. You had a lot of military folks overseas using this method, you had various groups that tended to lean a little bit more towards the Republican Party and what happened was when Donald Trump became president he started attacking mail-in voting.

That had two different effects simultaneously. One, a lot of the Republicans said 'Hey, President Trump says not to do it, I'm not going to do it' and a lot of Democrats said, 'Hey, President Trump says not to do it, I'm going to do it.' So we started to see polarization come not just to who you vote for, which is, of course, expected, but in terms of how you vote. We also see the same thing with this early voting. So the one-stop voting, we're going to see a lot more Democrats choosing that option than we are Republicans, we've already seen that.

Voters must temper their expectations for quick results

RUSTY: And does that play into voters' expectations as they await the ultimate results, both on election night and for the days after election night when properly post-marked ballots, mail-in ballots, are being counted? How would misunderstandings of the way these votes are processed come into play in terms of expectations?

COOPER: On election night when we start seeing all these results get posted and we're all refreshing the State Board of Elections website every four seconds, we're not seeing something that is changing in real time in terms of people's actual voting. What we're seeing is data getting updated. It's like watching a computer in mid-process. So I worry that we read too much into that.

So on election night they're going to dump the early voting early and they're going to dump the mail voting results early and it's going to look like the Democrats are up. So you take a race where you expect the Republican to win big for a minute it might look like the Democrat is way up and you might say 'Holy cow, what's going on?' And over the course of the night as the Election Day vote comes in, which is going to lean more heavily Republican, those numbers are going to shift. They're going to move more towards the Republican party.

That's not malfeasance, That's not somebody in the system messing up. Again, it's just like watching a computer process something. So that's going to change over the course of the night and I think, as you said very well, after Election Day there's going to be a few more ballots trickling in that are legal and cast exactly as they were supposed to. Those are probably going to lean a little bit more towards the Democratic Party.

So, in real terms, what does that mean? It means let's just say you've got an election that right after election night is dead tied and you think 'OK, the election is over, election night has come and gone.' The reality is there's still more ballots to be counted and those are more likely to lean a little bit more towards the Democratic Party.

So we're going to see fluctuations, we're going to see movements. That is normal, that's expected. If there's anything to blame here it's not election administration, it's our impatience in wanting to see the results before they're final.

RUSTY: And it seems, frankly, that partisan actors — I mean Donald Trump and his supporters in 2020 did this — know these fluctuations, but see that as an opportunity to exploit them and to suggest that there is malfeasance, as opposed to painstaking process.

COOPER: That's exactly right.

I mean if we looked at what President Trump said about what happened in Pennsylvania it was this exact process. Look, it's going to move over time, it's going to move over the course of the night. Not based on anybody doing on anything wrong, but on process, on the way ballots are processed and counted, on which places report earlier and report later.

Again, I think we would be better off as a democracy in some ways if we would all just turn off the TV, shut down the Wi-Fi on election night, you know, maybe watch some sports and don't pay any attention to politics but that's not what's going to happen. We're going to want the real-time feedback, we're going to get and we need to remember it is not complete feedback.

Even after Election Day, there are votes to be counted

RUSTY: And let's point out, too, here that North Carolina state law allows for counting mail-in ballots properly post-marked by Election Day received three days past Election Day and federal law has, for a long time, required the counting of military and overseas ballots received up to nine days after Election Day, is that right?

COOPER: Correct. So these so-called UOCAVA voters that are military folks stationed overseas, we accept those up to nine days after and North Carolina, each state gets to choose in terms of mail-in ballots and right now we're at the the three-day mark in North Carolina. So again, these tight races, look, it's probably not going to apply to the U.S. Senate race, these big statewide races, but these county commission races, these sheriff races that are so hot all throughout the state of North Carolina, some of these local offices we just might not know what's happening on election night.

RUSTY: Let's take the 2020 race for Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court between then-Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and Justice Paul Newby...(the race) came down to just around 400 votes and required recount and required, in some cases, hand-eye counting.

COOPER: This is part of the process. There is a recount process in North Carolina. It's written in our statutes, it is not only legal, it is required in some ways. So, if somebody does call for a recount whether that person is a Democrat, a Republican, Green Party member or Libertarian, or it's one of the very few non-partisan elections left in our state that doesn't mean they're up to no good. There are rules about when you can call for a recount.

Look, if somebody's up 75% to 25%, the 25% person cannot just call for a recount willy-nilly. But these very close races you are allowed to do it, it is accounted for in statute and it is, again, normal process.

RUSTY: So, if I was interested in casting my vote early and I go to a one-stop site but I don't have all the information I need to verify my eligibility I might be asked to cast a provisional ballot, right?

COOPER: Yes. So let's say you show up to a one-stop site and you want to do what we call same-day registration, which is, of course, registering to vote for the first time or it could be changing counties.

Let's say you're a student at UNC, you're from Forsyth County and you decide that 'No, actually I want to go ahead and register here at UNC.' You would do a same-day registration. It could be that you forgot your ID when you do that, could be that you can't get access to your account to be able to show your permanent address and so they say 'OK, well let's let you cast a provisional ballot, we're going to see if this is going to count, we're going to see if we can get all the information. If we do we'll count it, if we don't it disappears into thin air essentially, right? It is not counted.

Sometimes that happens when people show up to the wrong location. There's a host of different reasons where people have incomplete information and rather than saying 'Go home and come back when you got it together' they say 'OK, well let's go ahead and get your vote while you're here, then we're going to need to be able to verify all this information.' They refer to it as a voter-centric sort of policy. The idea is you think of voters like customers. You want them to be happy, you want them to be able to express their will and affect the process but you also need to be able to certify and make sure that person is who they are. That's the provisional balloting process.

North Carolina's elections process has 'a whole lot of checks and balances'

RUSTY: Please describe how the elections administration is processing everything from the first mail-in ballots that come in, through the one-stop, in-person ballots, all the way through Election Day, and then provisionals and all the mail-in ballots that come in after Election Day.

COOPER: First of all, we have, of course, a hundred counties in the state of North Carolina and every one of these counties has a board of elections. And so these boards of elections work in conjunction with the State Board of Elections to administer elections in the state.

It's a really confusing process in some ways but the thing that should make people feel better is that means there's a whole lot of checks and balances, right? You've got multiple levels of government at play here. And so each one of these county boards of elections meets to determine whether they're going to accept these ballots or whether there's something strange going on with them. That does not mean they're counting them, OK? So it does not mean that two weeks before the election the Wake County Board of Elections or the Jackson County Board of Elections or anybody else is saying 'Oh wow, that's one more for Beasley' or 'That's one more for Budd,' it's not that at all.

What they're saying is, 'This ballot counts, this ballot does not.' Right now in the state of North Carolina you need two witness signatures on your mail ballot, on the outside of it, right, on the packaging. Let's say that you forget that, you get one person to sign it, you send it in. (The board of elections) would say 'Hey, we're going to send that back to you. We're going to see if we can cure that ballot. We're not going to accept it right now, we're going to give it back to you and see if we can get that second signature, and if we do then we'll decide to accept it.'

So, it's one reason that if you're going to do mail balloting, try to get it in early, give yourself a little bit of a break in case something happens. It's like paying your bills early in case you don't put the right postage on it.

RUSTY: And it should be pointed out that these local boards, like the state Board of Elections, are bipartisan.

They're five member boards, the majority on the board usually reflects the party of the governor, in this case, so county boards are made of three Democrats, two Republicans. But they are bipartisan, processing the information seeing if all the witness information is correct or ifs it's been notarized properly and then these mail-in ballots are fed through these high-speed scanners that can handle lots of documents all at once.

The results, those votes you were talking about, you know, who voted for whom, that's stored basically in these computers and will then be released or dumped on Election Day.

COOPER: And nobody in the meantime has access to them so if you were to, you know, give truth serum to your local board of elections they could not tell you if Ted Budd or Cheri Beasley is up. They could not tell you how many votes have been cast for either one, that's exactly right.

Election machinery is thoroughly tested, certified

RUSTY: So then the one-stop, in-person early voting starts. How do those votes start getting counted or processed?

COOPER: Each person comes in, they present themselves, they give their address, they say who they are, if it's same day registration they need to show some form of ID.

They come in, they are given an application for a one-stop ballot application. They're then given a blank ballot, they then take that ballot and put it into another machine essentially where it is counted and stored and this process occurs every day. And, so, let's sort of think about what this looks like. We got 100 counties. We have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of early voting one-stop locations. We have thousands of poll workers throughout the state of North Carolina, we have hundreds and hundreds of board members throughout the state of North Carolina: all of them are trying to make sure that this process works, this process is verifiable, this process is secure.

RUSTY: And all this machinery that a lot of people have concerns about, often concerns rooted in misinformation or even disinformation, these machines go through rounds of logic and accuracy testing, right?

COOPER: Yes, just like you would for any sort of factory or any sort of machine, there's logic and accuracy testing, which, basically says 'Is this thing doing the thing it's supposed to be doing?' How precise is it?' And the answer is: extremely precise.

So how do we know that? Well, sometimes when there's recounts, we can compare the previous count to the later count and we can compare this logic and accuracy testing and what we see time and time again is that this is an extremely reliable process, it's almost impossible to imagine a more accurate way to count millions of votes across the state.

After ballots are counted, bipartisan county boards canvass the results

RUSTY: Now Election Day has come and gone, it's election night and like you said, if trends are correct, then there's going to be a likely surge of Republican-leaning voters showing up but election night only yields unofficial results, right, and there are still votes to process? Go through that if you can.

COOPER: So like we talked about how there are mail-in votes to be counted that will come in that are absolutely 100% legal and justifiable. I mean, if you think are they justifiable, well, if you've got somebody in the military stationed in Japan and the ballot gets in three days late you want that ballot to be counted, right? Of course, we all do. So those ballots are going to come in.

RUSTY: When all that's said and done, there is still a thorough process known as the 10-day canvass period. Can you describe what's going on there?

COOPER: So they go in and take a sample of sites and essentially double check and make sure that they're still getting the same results again. It's like, you know, you go over your budget and you've added all the numbers up and you think you've got enough money to, you know, whatever, afford the new car and then you want to go back in and you want to check it over again and you want to make sure that all your sums add up right and that you didn't make a mistake somewhere. That's exactly what they do.

So they take a sample, they go back through that balloting and, again, you've got bipartisan teams that are making sure that everything comes up the same way again. If they see any big problems like we saw in Bladen County then they can choose to not certify the election. There's a whole different process that happens there as well. Look, the one time we had any sort of any credible evidence of widespread election fraud in the state of North Carolina the process worked exactly the way it was supposed to work.

Widespread fraud is 'extremely rare'

RUSTY: And just how rare is this widespread election fraud?

COOPER: Extremely rare. Again, widespread, we're not talking onesies and twosies, we're talking a widespread voter fraud is extremely rare and even the example in Bladen County, North Carolina, I would argue is not voter fraud, this was election fraud, right--

RUSTY: This was the 2018 Congressional race in the 9th Congressional District in North Carolina.

COOPER: Yes, this is the 9th Congressional District. There was a bad actor essentially who was trying to collect and harvest mail ballots. It was not that voters themselves were trying to double vote, it was that somebody was collecting these in a certain way.

And the one time this happened we caught it. So widespread voter fraud is a myth. It's a myth partially because, really, who would go through that much trouble to do this and put themselves at this much risk? But also just logistically it's almost impossible to do.

This is an incredibly decentralized process. If everything ran through the State Board of Elections and we voted online, sure maybe you'd have a reason to be concerned. But the way we do the process in the state of North Carolina, 100 different counties, 100 different county boards, thousands and thousands of poll workers, bipartisan teams, it's just an impossible task even if you wanted to do it.

RUSTY: And those onesies and twosies, those one-off instances of fraud if you want to call it, often come down to people really not understanding the law, not understanding the situation and not people intentionally out to double vote or to try to subvert the system?

COOPER: Yes, they are almost without exception mistakes. Sometimes, frankly, they're clerical mistakes.

So somebody comes up and they are misidentified at the polling place, you know it's John Smith III instead of John Smith IV and it looks like it is a double vote and it turns out a father and a son both showed up. So sometimes the vast majority of the time they're clerical errors.

The rare times where it is a true double vote, it is usually unintentional. The very rare times where it's real it is one person and although sometimes I wish one person could determine the outcome of an election, that's pretty rare.

RUSTY: So what is the takeaway for the everyday voter who hears claims of fraud, what is the importance of understanding the thorough process you've just described?

COOPER: I think the importance is trust. I think the importance is we're going to learn the outcome, we need to be a little bit patient about it, right?

We may not know it at 9 p.m. on election night. Sure that would be great, it would make whatever commentary I give that night a lot easier but the reality is we might have to wait but we can trust the process, that North Carolina elections very well.

We're going to see fluctuations throughout the night, that is not a changing reality. You're just watching a computer count and, in addition to being kind of boring, that's going to say 'Sometimes it looks like one group's up sometimes it looks like the other group is up.'

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC.