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What's next after Election Day: Outstanding ballots, canvassing, and recounts

Benjamin Schachtman
The last votes were cast on, or postmarked by, Election Day. Now what?

Election Day has come and gone, but there’s still plenty left unresolved. In North Carolina, over 100,000 absentee ballots remain ‘outstanding,’ including thousands in New Hanover County. Over the next week, the final tallies will continue to change as absentee and provisional ballots are evaluated, and the potential for recount request remains on the table.

The 2020 election saw record breaking turnout, but the results published by the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE) on Tuesday evening aren’t the end of the story.

The state is currently waiting on up to 116,200 outstanding absentee ballots. That number could be lower: the total includes all requested absentee ballots that have not yet been received, but some residents who requested ballots may have instead voted in person --- or not at all. The final tally will include all absentee ballots received by November 12 and postmarked on November 3 or earlier.

The outstanding ballots skew towards unaffiliated and Democratic voters (45,300 unaffiliated, 43,000 Democratic, and 26,500 Republican voters). Locally, outstanding ballots are expected to fall along similar lines.

Locally, the NCSBE expects 3,200 absentee ballots in New Hanover County, 1,400 in Brunswick County, and 600 in Pender County.

It’s worth noting that New Hanover County, which has a higher proportion of Democratic voters, has a higher percentage of outstanding absentee ballots (about 50% more absentee ballots per registered voter versus neighboring, more Republican-leaning counties). That’s correlation, not causation --- but it lends credence to expectations that absentee ballots could lean more Democratic in New Hanover County.

There are also 40,766 provisional ballots state-wide, according to NCSBE, including 1,200 in New Hanover County, 869 in Brunswick County, and 340 in Pender County. These ballots are cast “when an individual’s name does not appear on the poll book or other questions arise about that person’s eligibility to vote or to vote a particular ballot,” according to NCSBE.

The eligibility of provisional voters is being evaluated by county election boards; eligible ballots will be added to the final count along with absentee ballots.

The total numbers, including early, one-stop, absentee, provisional, and Election Day ballots won’t be known until late next week, most likely after county board canvasses, which are scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday, November 13.

After the results of the canvass, candidates that are within a certain margin can request a recount.

That margin depends on the vote totals --- 1% of the total votes cast for two candidates involved in the challenge.

For example, in the race for three New Hanover County Board of Commissioners seats, third-place Jonathan Barfield Jr. and fourth-place Brian Calvin “Skip” Watkins are just 477 votes apart; Barfield received 58,014 votes to Watkins’ 57,537 votes. The margin for this race is 1% of the total votes (115,551), or 1,116 votes --- meaning Watkins is well within the range for a recount request.

This margin will change when additional absentee and provisional votes are added to the tally. Still, it’s possible that the candidates will remain inside the recount request margin.

The margin is sometimes referred to simply as 1% between the candidates, but that’s inaccurate – and the distinction is important in close races.

For example, in the race for three New Hanover County Board of Education seats, third-place Hugh McManus and fourth-place Pete Wildeboer are .94% apart. But although their totals are less than 1% apart, the 3,190 difference in votes is nearly three times too large for a recount based on the margin of 1,155 --- 1% of the total of their votes. So, the canvass could shift those numbers, and the margin, but a recount is much less likely than in the closer commissioner race.

In races under the supervision of county boards of election, candidates have until 5 p.m. on Monday, November 16. State level candidates have until noon on Tuesday, November 17.

Later this month, the State Board of Elections will certify statewide results for all federal, statewide, multi-district and judicial contests at a public meeting held at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 24. Updates from the NCSBE can be found here.