By Kari Travis
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — Given voting challenges amid COVID-19, what can you actually expect to know about ballot results at the close of Election Day?
More than you might think, Carolina Journal has learned from the N.C. State Board of Elections. The state board expects to tally as much as 80% of the vote after polls close Tuesday, Nov. 3, NCSBE Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell told CJ.
There’s no question Election Day will look different this year, Bell said during a news conference Tuesday, Oct. 20. Social distancing means longer lines at polling places. Between 20% and 30% of voters are expected to mail absentee ballots. Mail-in votes have the potential to be counted up to nine days after the election, so long as they’re postmarked by Nov. 3.
Much is at stake during this year’s general election. The presidential race, which North Carolina voters will play an important role in deciding. The gubernatorial race, which pits incumbent Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper against Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. The N.C. Supreme Court races, which will shape the state’s political landscape for years to come. The Council of State elections, which include powerful positions like those of state treasurer and labor commissioner.
All General Assembly seats are also contested. Republicans have held majority power in the N.C. House and Senate for nearly 10 years, and Democrats are challenging to regain strongholds. The outcome of the 2020 election will influence the state’s next redistricting cycle after the 2020 census, since new voter maps will favor whichever party holds the General Assembly.
The NCSBE — embattled for approving a controversial elections settlement in September — is taking every precaution to ensure a safe, fair election, Bell told reporters at the news conference. Bell is a key figure in the Democrat-led settlement, which would’ve eliminated the witness signature on absentee ballots, allowed unmanned drop boxes, and extended the deadline for receiving mail ballots from three days to nine days after the election. The deal, made between the state board and the union-backed N.C. Alliance of Retired Americans, was reached behind closed doors last month. Hundreds of thousands of votes had already been cast at the time.
Three lawsuits challenged the settlement, and the cases have been consolidated. Federal Judge William Osteen restored the witness signature requirement in an order earlier this month. But he didn’t touch the matters of unmanned drop boxes and the extended deadline for counting mail-in ballots.
Republican leaders say they’ll keep fighting the extension of the deadline for counting mail-in ballots. State law sets a Nov. 6 cut-off date for those ballots to be eligible. The NCSBE settlement moved that date to Nov. 12.
Bell has said that unmanned ballot drop-offs aren’t allowed.
Voter turnout so far has been high.
North Carolina has 7,311,145 registered voters. The state board projects that 50% of all ballots will be cast early, in person, Bell told CJ.
Early, in-person voting, which opened Oct. 15, has drawn 1,911,620 people as of 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 22. Another 716,607 have voted by mail. That means at least 2,628,227 people have cast their ballot so far during the 2020 General Election. By comparison, fewer than 800,000 by-mail and in-person votes had been cast at about this time in 2016.
Mail-in ballots are already being processed and readied for counting, Bell said. At 7:30 p.m. on Election Night, the NCSBE will release results for all mail-in ballots that have been received and entered into counting machines.
Bell cautioned the public against expecting immediate results from voting precincts. While polls close at 7:30, anyone still in line will be allowed to vote, she said. Poll workers will work late to tally votes and submit the results to the state board’s database.
“I’m hopeful it will not be into the wee hours of the morning, but we will just have to wait and see on that,” she said.
Keep in mind, Bell said, that all of these results will remain unofficial until they are fully vetted and certified. Individual county boards will certify vote counts Nov 13. The state board is set to meet Nov. 24 to finalize results.
Early voting ends Saturday, Oct. 31. The state board’s website lists polling sites by county and even gives estimates on wait times.