Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Elections officials argue over tiny number of erroneous ballots on Election Day eve

New Hanover County Board of Elections meetings have taken place routinely over the last few weeks leading up to Election Day. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands)

WILMINGTON—When polls across New Hanover County opened at 6:30 on the morning of Election Day, more than 112,000 people in the county — 63.6% of registered voters — already had cast their ballots. 

In a Monday night meeting, the New Hanover County Board of Elections ironed out last-minute ambiguities relating to a fractional number of mail-in ballots. In total, around 25,000 mail-in ballots have been submitted to the elections office, and among a tiny slice of those, disputes around interpretations of various legal rulings and state laws are playing out at a local level. 

Rae Hunter-Havens, the elections director, let out a sigh as the board debated voting law interpretations on the eve of Election Day. Members of the board went back and forth on the fate of less than 20 absentee ballots that were returned to the elections office by someone who was not a close family member of the voter — which is not permitted under N.C. law.

Some board members wanted to accept the ballots, making an argument based on the need for every vote to count. Others — though reluctant to nullify votes — made a plea to reject the improperly returned ballots, citing a “slippery slope” argument that could eventually lead to conditions ripe for ballot harvesting, they said.

“This is not about those 11 ballots and whether they’re valid,” board member Jonathan Washburn said at the meeting. “That’s not my issue.” 

Board member Derrick Miller, in favor of accepting the ballots, said he understood the concerns held by his counterparts — based largely around setting a precedent for future elections — in counting the ballots.

“I feel like we’re maybe scaring ourselves with a fantasy of an army of people, pretending to be someone’s niece, bringing in an army of ballots,” Miller said at the meeting. 

The motion to approve the small number of ballots, which had been returned by someone other than a close relative of the voter, ultimately failed to get any votes. In this situation as in others, local election officials offered the final determination on the fates of some mailed-in ballots, as for weeks now they have been navigating a fluid set of election laws.

In counties across the state, local election boards are making nuanced calls — balancing a desire for every vote to count with some members’ apprehension to loosely interpret election laws — on ballots that have subtle or more pronounced deficiencies. Within N.C. there could be thousands of ballots in a so-called gray area, of which county elections boards will make the final judgment on counting or rejecting it.

“Complex rules, lengthy rules, lead to complex interpretations,” Miller said after the meeting. “Ninety-nine percent of the cases are clearcut. We’re kind of arguing about that 1 percent of cases that doesn’t fall into this rule or that rule.” 

In the lead up to Election Day, challenges to N.C. voting laws have moved upward through legal channels. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that N.C. continue to count ballots received until Nov. 12, as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3. N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein called the decision a victory, and Republican leaders in the state alluded to the small possibility of a situation in which a host of pivotal, tide-turning ballots start flooding into elections offices in the days following Nov. 3. 

In total, New Hanover County has collected more than 87,000 ballots from in-person, early voting stations, which were open from Oct. 17-31. Starting at around 2 p.m. on Election Day, those ballots will be tabulated. Results will start to be made public at 7:30 p.m. 

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