Complaint filed over ballot counting before polls closed

An election watchdog in Swain County is protesting the tallying of early votes before the close of polls on Election Day, claiming it could have given some candidates an unfair advantage if those results be leaked.

The results from early voting are often an indication of who’s winning and losing. In the 2008 general election, some mountain counties saw nearly 50 percent of those who cast ballots do so during the two-week early voting period.

While state law allows election officials to get a jumpstart by tabulating the results from early voting during the afternoon of Election Day, Mike Clampitt of Swain County thinks it leaves too much room for corruption.

The results from early voting can’t be announced until after the polls close. But it is technically OK for those on the board of elections to call a few friends, party officials or even select candidates and share the results that afternoon.

“I would prefer they not talk about it outside the board office, but that is not publicizing or publishing the results,” said Johnnie McLean, deputy director of the N.C. Board of Elections in Raleigh.

Sharing the results indiscriminately with the public, such as releasing them to the media or posting them on the wall in the elections office, would be illegal. But a single phone call to a particular candidate to tell them how they fared is not illegal, McLean said. Besides, McLean doesn’t see what a candidate could do with that knowledge in just a few short hours.

“About the only thing they could do would be contact their supporters and ensure that they have gone to vote,” Mclean said.

Precisely, Clampitt countered.

Clampitt said there are still three to four hours left to drum up voters for your candidate once early votes have been tabulated. In a small county, where elections can easily be decided by less than 100 votes, that knowledge could make a difference.

Clampitt has filed a formal complaint over the tallying of early votes in Swain County, although the process is similar to that used in other counties and conforms with state law.

The counting of ballots, including early voting ballots, is a public process and can’t be done behind closed doors. Per state election law, any member of the public is allowed to witness the process. Technically, those present could overhear election officials talking about the results as they are printed out, or even catch a glimpse.

In Haywood County, Election Director Robert Inman said he would be disappointed if election officials tabulating results shared them outside the office. They don’t give verbal cues that would reveal results to those present as observers. In fact, they make a point of not even studying the tallies as they are printed out, according to Inman.

“We do all we can to not see them,” said Inman. “We do our utmost not to know.”

It is difficult to do, however.

“There is no way you can count without knowing the totals,” said Lisa Lovedahl, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections. “The board members are human.”

The human factor also makes it impossible to guarantee that the results stay within the four walls of the election office.

Clampitt witnessed the counting of early votes in Swain County and says election officials mulled over the results, as would most people in the same position.

“If a person has access to something, don’t you think they are going to do it? That is just human nature,” Clampitt said.

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