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Deep Dive: New Hanover and Brunswick county elections directors on security, early voting, and Election Day

Sara LaVere is the elections director for Brunswick County
Rachel Keith
Sara LaVere is the elections director for Brunswick County

Elections directors in New Hanover and Brunswick counties are getting ready for the 2022 midterms. WHQR visited their offices and has this report.

Rae Hunter-Havens has been the elections director of New Hanover County for about five years but has been supporting the work of the county’s elections since 2011.

On the other side of the Cape Fear river, Sara LaVere has been the Brunswick County elections director since 2006.

“So I've been in elections 16 years, which seems like an eternity. I started as the deputy director and then when my boss retired in 2014, I got the job of director,” LaVere said.

Both Hunter-Havens and LaVere have said they take their jobs very seriously.

“I think voting really is the cornerstone of democracy. And for voters to have a way to turn out, let their preferences be known in a safe and secure manner is essential,” Hunter-Havens said.

Rae Hunter-Havens is the elections director for New Hanover County.
Rachel Keith
Rae Hunter-Havens is the elections director for New Hanover County.

Getting the right information

Both elections directors have reiterated how important it is for voters to get the most accurate information.

“I'm sure your neighbors or folks down the street or any organization you might belong to will try to give you helpful information, but I still think it's best for them to go straight to the source to make sure the information they're getting is correct,” Hunter-Havens said.

LaVere agreed. Full-time election employees are there to answer any questions the public has about the process.

“Call me, I really want the opportunity to hear what your concerns are,” LaVere said. “Are they specific concerns? Are they something you heard somebody else say?”

And Hunter-Havens and LaVere have said that the public is able to view how their county election boards approve absentee ballots and transparently discuss election-related issues.

Constituents can even live stream their elections board meetings online.

“I also encourage people to participate in the process. Anytime we look at live ballots, we are doing that under the presence of our bipartisan board, we live stream everything. And I think some other people are probably like, ‘Why are you still live streaming COVID is over?’ But really, we just want to make sure that people have the opportunity to see what we're doing if they have an interest,” LaVere said.

Related: Board of Elections discussed absentee ballots, balancing precincts

Election officials 

At the New Hanover County Board of Elections Office, they have eight full-time staff members. In Brunswick, there are six of these employees. Both offices also hire part-time seasonal workers to support the county’s elections.

As for poll workers and election officials, Hunter-Havens and LaVere said they have enough.

“We had a very large turnout, the parties have been very active in trying to encourage their members to complete an election official application. So right now, I think we have sufficient staffing,” Hunter-Havens said.

Hunter-Havens said she’s proud of ordinary citizens volunteering their time to support democratic values.

“Just to see that they're able to sort of put aside any partisanship concerns, and really focus on serving voters in a nonpartisan manner. I really think that is the foundation to make sure that elections stay secure, safe, and that they're fair,” Hunter-Havens said.

Each Election Day polling place will have two judges and a chief judge.

“The chief judges are really responsible for managing the polling place,” Hunter-Havens said.

As for whether poll workers are ‘nervous’ about serving the public for the midterm elections, LaVere said, “I think they are to be honest, maybe on a bigger scale, and not specifically in Brunswick County, I haven't heard a lot from our precinct officials to indicate that they are.”

LaVere tells poll workers and chief judges if something were to happen to disrupt the voting process, “they call 911. I say, ‘don’t call me first, if something serious happens, because I can't get to you, I'm in the office. And they [911 operators] will find an officer in the area if you need it.”

But sometimes, LaVere said, if it’s a lesser infraction, she could tell the chief judge to put that person on the phone.

“Okay, walk out there, hand my phone to that person, and we're gonna have a conversation about what you can and can't do, what the law says, what maybe you should or shouldn't do, and what the perception is,” LaVere said.

An example of a common violation is a person crossing the 50-foot buffer zone around the polling site.

“They will go right up to that buffer zone, they know not to cross it. And the chief judge is trained to go out and monitor that routinely throughout the day, just to make sure. And I can tell you if one candidate crosses it, the other candidate is going to call our office and tell us, so we're going to know about it. It's not going to be a surprise,” LaVere said.

Due to increased concerns about harassment and intimidation, LaVere installed ‘panic buttons.’

“To be honest, I never thought that a Board of Elections Office would be a place you need a panic button. But when you hear about some of the other Board of Elections offices around the country that are having harassment and things like that, it's a little scary. So we got panic buttons, and I mean we've tested them and the sheriff's department is right across the parking lot, so if we were to need it and press that button, we would have a very fast reaction time,” LaVere said.

Related: New Hanover County election workers are training for intimidation and threats

The voter

The most important thing a voter can do before Election Day or early voting, according to Hunter-Havens and LaVere, is to check their voter registration status (note: the state’s online system is very sensitive to spelling and won’t return correct results unless you use your full first and last name).

This will tell a voter whether or not they’re registered, list their polling place on Election Day, and provide a sample ballot if they’re registered to vote.

If a voter to decides to vote early, then they can visit any of the county’s one-stop sites.

Voters who missed the registration deadline on October 14, can vote at these early voting sites with proof of address, but on Election Day, they have to show up at their correct polling place.

But if a voter wants to vote outside their designated polling place on November 8, they have the option to cast a provisional ballot.

Getting this type of voter information out can be difficult for these elections directors.

“They probably aren't thinking about the Election until the day of, and they hear something on the news, they go to a place with a ‘Vote here’ sign, it may not be the right location. And that is the kind of frustration that I really want to help prevent,” LaVere said.

Hunter-Havens added if this is at all confusing and/or the voter isn’t technologically savvy, “[Voters] certainly can call our office, and we can double-check that voter information for them.”

Another important piece of information Hunter-Havens and LaVere want voters to know – there is no photo identification required for this year’s midterms.

Some voters, according to LaVere, want to show election officials their IDs, but she said their poll workers are trained to say, ‘No, thank you.’

“Because we really aren't even supposed to be looking at it because that can give the illusion that it's required and it is not. So yes, at this time because of current litigation, there is no photo ID needed to check in to vote. You do have to provide your name and your address, and that's how the precinct officials find you in the poll book and confirm that they have the right record,” LaVere said.

Another voting change is for those voters who were formerly incarcerated.

“So as long as a convicted felon is no longer in prison, so if they're on probation, parole, anything like that, but they're not in prison, they're eligible to vote now, which is a big change,” LaVere said.

Both elections directors said that for voters with disabilities, there are plenty of options for them to cast their ballots. Both counties offer curbside voting – and they have special voting machines on site to help those who are visually impaired.

And once voters are in the booth, they are not allowed to photograph their ballot.

“That's prohibited. But if you need to do some research on it, you can, we would ask that you refrain from talking on your cell phone, but certainly, if you're there to do research on it, you could do that. But, I would say that it's probably not good to wait until the last minute because connectivity in certain places might not be as good as others based on your cell phone carrier,” Hunter-Havens said.

The machines & security measures

There are onlytwo certified voting machines in North Carolina: the ES&S (AutoMark & ExpressVote are used) and Hart Verity Touch Writer.

New Hanover uses ES&S, and Brunswick has Hart Verity.

The State Board of Elections has an interactive map to show which counties use which machines. They also link to the machines’ manuals, detailing how they work.

Both elections directors attest to the machines being tested thoroughly to ensure they are working properly before early voting and Election Day.

Additionally, Hunter-Havens and LaVere live streamed their ‘logic and accuracy testing’ of their voting machines.

“We had a camera set up in the room. The mute button wasn't on, you could hear us have dialogue about the machines, you could hear us have dialogue with the people that came to witness, you could hear the instructions being given, it was like you were in the room,” LaVere said.

And on Election Day, the voting machines are not connected to the Internet nor are any laptops that election officials use.

The only exception to laptops being connected to the Internet is at early voting sites, because, “We want to make sure that we get that voter history information transferred so that we have safeguards in place to prevent voters from voting at multiple sites. And we then on Saturday, November 5, when one-stop closes, we will update every single laptop that's going to be used on Election Day with that information,” Hunter-Havens said.

Those laptops are also using encrypted networks.

Like New Hanover County, Brunswick, too, has major security protections over the voting equipment.

“These don't have any modems in them. What they do get is an encrypted USB drive that gets put into the machine after it is tested. And then it's sealed. And the seal isn't broken until Election night when the polls closed. And so they'll actually cut it, cut the seal, check the numbers on it, make sure it matches the serial number we recorded during testing. And then that little USB Drive is what the chief judges bring us Election night for us to pull results,” LaVere said.

Visiting New Hanover and Brunswick counties' Board of Elections Offices, the rooms that house the voting machines or sensitive voting information are all locked behind key-carded doors.

For example, in both counties, the absentee ballots that have been received thus far are locked away with little access to them.

“When we start sorting and getting ready to deploy Election Day ballots, they will become stacked in this whole area, it'll be pretty tight. When we start getting returns from the early voting sites every day, all of those voted ballots go in here. We don't leave them at the polling place. We get those here every day. Those get locked in here,” LaVere said.

And those absentee ballots aren’t tallied or counted until November 8.

As for the Election Day ballots, “They are currently locked in our warehouse, and they actually don't get put in the into [locked, secured] voting cages until the weekend before the Election. We keep those in the vault up until that point,” LaVere added.

Even with these ‘cages’ with all the voting supplies in them for Brunswick, “they also have a security seal that goes on so they log that number on Monday when they finish setting up, and when it's broken on Tuesday morning, they're checking that seal number and signing off on it,” she said.

Voting: One-stop/early voting and Election Day (Nov. 8)

In New Hanover County, there are 15 days of early voting, starting on Thursday, October 20 – and ending on Saturday, November 5.

In Brunswick, the county has 17 days of early voting. The two additional days in comparison to New Hanover come from the early voting sites staying open on Saturday, October 22, and Sunday, October 23.

On Election Day, New Hanover has 43 precincts or polling places. For Brunswick, it’s a total of 27.

“We always encourage voters to develop a plan for this Election,” Hunter-Havens said.

Hunter-Havens said one of the biggest challenges for people who turn out to vote on November 8: “Their address has changed, and we don't have that information yet. And it's especially challenging for them if they do it on Election Day because for them to get the ballot that's correct for them with all the contests they're eligible to vote for.”

In New Hanover County, there are a total of five ballot styles, with three legislative districts. Voters are eligible for particular North Carolina Senate and House districts depending on their address.

On Election Day, election officials sometimes see issues like voters submitting a blank ballot or ‘over voting’ a contest – for example, if a voter chose five New Hanover County Board of Education candidates instead of only choosing the maximum, four.

“Do you want to cast the ballot? Or do you want me to return it to you? And if we return it to them, what we would do is ‘spoil’ the ballot and issue them a whole new ballot and let them vote that one. Because at the end of the day, if they want their votes in that contest to count, they're going to need to revote it because if they allow the machine to take it and cast that ‘over voted’ ballot, it will not count the vote in the ‘over voted’ contest. It just ignores them,” Hunter-Havens said.

For the blank ballot, according to Hunter-Havens, “The machines have been programmed that they will alert the voter that, ‘Hey, you're about to insert a blank ballot, is that what you want?’

Reporting misconduct or an election violation

During the election process, Hunter-Havens says voters can always file an incident report with the State Board of Elections.

But she said, “we would really encourage them to speak to either the chief judge to report that to them because that's something that we can try to resolve or at least address on site. Every chief judge or one-stop lead has the authority to maintain the security and order at that site.”

Hunter-Havens reiterated that if something is “undue, we want to make sure that's reported because we want all voters to feel like they can turn out to vote in a safe manner, free of any kind of unfair influence, or any kind of impediment that might be placed in front of them.”

A constituent can also submit an “election protest.”

“And that is something that's done immediately after an Election, if there is an allegation that actually has merit to it, somebody could reach out, or I could reach out to the State Board of Elections and submit that to their investigative team. A lot of the employees on that team are former law enforcement, FBI agents. So I mean, they are equipped to do true investigations,” LaVere said.

Hunter-Havens also described what happens to people who arrive right at the closing of polls at 7:30 p.m.

“The leads will instruct someone or themselves to go out, take the name of every voter in line at that closing time, and then all these individuals will be able to vote. And if somebody tries to come at the end, they would not be allowed to vote, but if for some reason they insist upon it, we would vote them provisionally because it would technically be after what is permitted,” Hunter-Havens said.

Provisional voting

Hunter-Havens said voting out of precinct is the most common reason election officials see provisional ballots.

She said that voters can vote out of a precinct, but “we just want to make sure that they’re eligible for all of the contests on the ballot.”

LaVere said there's a lot of misconception about provisional ballots.

“Provisional is really the failsafe that we have to make sure that voters get the opportunity to vote, but I don't get to say that that ballot counts, because the board makes that determination at canvass,” LaVere said.

She added, “We have really tried in our poll worker training to stress that when precinct officials are offering the option of provisional that they don't make it sound unappealing, but some people may not want to take advantage because that vote doesn't get released Election night.”

Basically, election officials can either give a voter a provisional ballot if they’re at the wrong polling place – or look up the address where the voter is supposed to vote and redirect them there.

Between Election night and the canvass on November 18, the Board of Elections Offices are compiling these provisional ballots, and doing their research for the pre-canvass meeting.

New Hanover election officials will meet Thursday, November 7 at 2 p.m. for their pre-canvass meeting.

“We present all of our information – and that research to the board and the board will then determine which ones are approved, if any are partially approved, or if they're not approved, and typically the not approved would be the voter just wasn't registered,” Hunter-Havens said.

Canvass: When Election results are official

After the midterms, the county Board of Elections will conduct audits of the votes cast. Its purpose is to double-check the machines.

“We've been doing something following an Election called a ‘sample audit count’. We have two random precincts chosen for us by the state. And we bring in a bipartisan team to hand-tally the top contest on every ballot in that location. Every time we do that, we have to do it usually twice for at least one set of the ballots because it doesn't match up, but we know, it's got to be a human error, LaVere said.

She added, “Anytime you introduce humans into looking at those and doing tallies, and things like that, things are gonna get missed.”

And the research on this – voting machine tallies versus hand-to-eye counts – is in favor of the machines.

Related: Research finds hand counting ballots to be less accurate and more expensive

However, Hunter-Havens knows what happens when the votes are close – and there can be an occasion when hand-to-eye counts come into play.

This primary season, New Hanover County Board of Education candidates Nelson Beaulieu and Jennah Bosch were separated by only three votes.

The North Carolina general statute governing ordering recounts of County Board of Elections is the following:

“A candidate shall have the right to demand a recount of the votes if the difference between the votes for that candidate and the votes for a prevailing candidate is not more than one percent (1%) of the total votes cast in the ballot item, or in the case of a multiseat ballot item not more than one percent (1%) of the votes cast for those two candidates. The demand for a recount must be made in writing and must be received by the county board of elections by 5:00 P.M. on the first business day after the canvass. The recount shall be conducted under the supervision of the county board of elections.”

Hunter-Havens said some of the hand-counted ballots showed the actual voter’s intent, something the machine couldn’t necessarily discern.

“Because oftentimes, voters may not have filled in the oval. They may have put a check or something, and the machine was not able to read that. So in the end, that hand-to-eye recount reversed the results. And so I would certainly let voters know that every vote counts. I think the main things are to read the instructions, mark your ballot with the information, fill in the oval, and look to see how many candidates you need to vote for,” Hunter-Havens said.

Another issue is sorting out specific races on a ballot that a voter may not have been eligible to vote in.

“Perhaps you're in Senate District 7, but you voted at a precinct that had Senate District 8, we will have to, with a bipartisan team under the board's supervision, not count that specific race they were not eligible for, but the other contests will count,” Hunter-Havens said.

LaVere said the time between Election Day results and canvass can be confusing for voters.

“I've heard with the doubters is, ‘Well, this came out Election night, and then it changed to this. I saw the numbers go up and go down and then this candidate got some ballots,’ and none of it’s official Election night. To treat it like this is the ‘end all, be all,’ result of the election, that's not how it works,” LaVere said.

And the elections directors said that the canvass, too, is open to the public.

“So if somebody wanted to watch us do this, they could actually come into our office and watch it. It takes all day. It's not a quick process, but it is open if somebody wanted to watch it, LaVere said.


Find candidate and voting information here.

New Hanover County Board of Elections meetings

Brunswick County Board of Elections meetings

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR