Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Voting is over, but results still aren’t final. Here’s what’s next for absentee, provisional ballots

New Hanover County Board of Elections members sift through absentee by-mail ballots in a board meeting held last week. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)
New Hanover County Board of Elections members sift through absentee by-mail ballots in a board meeting held last week. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — All votes have already been cast, but the post-election process is running full-steam ahead as elections officials across the state work to finish verifying and counting every ballot.

In New Hanover County and across N.C., a few races still have the possibility of swinging, once all eligible absentee by-mail and provisional ballots are counted.

Related: Hours before polls close, Gen Z voters seek last-minute support for their candidates

Of particular interest is the Sen. Harper Peterson-Michael Lee District 9 matchup, separated by just 1,468 votes — a 1.2% margin — as of Tuesday. There’s also the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners race, in which Republican Skip Watkins trails behind Democratic incumbent Jonathan Barfield Jr. by 477 votes — a 0.14% margin between earning the last spot on the board.

In New Hanover County alone, an absolute maximum possibility of 4,400 absentee by-mail and provisional ballots could still be counted by next week. However, this figure is sure to be lower, after elections officials validate provisional ballots and see how many returned absentee ballots arrive by mail.

What’s left to count?

Absentee by-mail results tend to favor Democrats. Statewide, registered Democrats requested the majority (46%) of absentee by-mail ballots counted so far this cycle, followed by those registered as unaffiliated (34%) and as Republican (20%). The previously underused voting method saw an historic surge this year due to the pandemic, with more than five times more votes cast by mail compared to 2016.

“There have been around 1,100-1,200 absentee ballots received since the last absentee board meeting on Monday, Nov. 2, and this number continues to go up,” county spokesperson Jessica Loeper wrote in an email midday Thursday.

New Hanover County still has a maximum possibility of receiving 3,200 outstanding absentee by-mail ballots, according to data shared by N.C. State Board of Elections Thursday morning. This figure includes unreturned ballots for voters who requested to vote by mail and did not participate in the early voting period.

In actuality, it will likely be smaller, considering: 1. the yet-to-be-determined number of voters who received absentee by-mail ballots but chose to vote on Election Day and 2. individuals who both chose not to vote in person or return their absentee ballots.

All absentee by-mail ballots must have been postmarked by 5 p.m. Nov. 3 and received by the county board of elections by Nov. 12 in order to be counted. This extended deadline, in place via a state settlement with a voting rights group, was validated by the U.S. Supreme Court in a ruling last week.

This leaves county boards of elections across N.C. the ability to accept ballots postmarked on time in consideration of anticipated mail delays. It’s also left candidates, campaigns, and many voters anxious, clamoring for results that won’t come for at least another week. 

By law, county boards of election cannot schedule meetings necessary to count absentee by-mail ballots without a two-week notice. This means local boards won’t be able to tabulate absentee ballots as they arrive until either the 12th or 13th — New Hanover County Board of Elections will soon host two special meetings, one on Nov. 12 at 2 p.m. and on Nov. 13 at 11 a.m.

Brunswick County still has a maximum possibility of receiving 1,400 unreturned absentee by-mail ballots; Pender County has 600; statewide, 116,000 could still arrive before the 12th — though the actual figure is likely to be lower.

Then there are provisional ballots. Provisional ballots are provided to voters on Election Day when, for myriad reasons, voters’ information doesn’t exactly match data maintained by election officials. For example, voters who arrive at the incorrect precinct on Election Day but still elect to vote at the wrong location would receive a provisional ballot.

After local election officials have time to rectify information during the vote history process that’s underway, eligible provisional ballots are then tabulated.

During the last general election, N.C. accepted 44% of the 61,000 provisional ballots cast, State Board of Elections director Karen Brinson Bell shared in a press conference Wednesday.

New Hanover County received 1,200 provisional ballots this cycle, Loeper said Thursday. Brunswick County received 869 provisional ballots; Pender County received 340; N.C. received 40,766, according to state data released Thursday. These ballots are being verified by election officials to determine voter eligibility.

In all, this year’s election was record-breaking across the board. With ballots still being counted, more than 74% of registered voters in N.C. participated this cycle.

“That number is simply astounding,” Damon Circosta, chair of the State Board of Elections, said at the Wednesday press conference. Total votes cast (17,401) jumped more than 15% in New Hanover County compared to 2016, with turnout among registered voters on par with the state. In Brunswick County — the fastest growing county in N.C. — turnout was among the highest in the state, at 78%, with 20,875 more votes cast. Turnout increased in Pender County as well, up to 76% from 70% in 2016, with 6,068 more votes cast.

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at johanna@localdailymedia.com

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