Jackson Board of Elections corrects election night mistake
The Jackson County Board of Elections held a public meeting Friday, Nov. 11, to inform the public about a misstep in the election night ballot counting process. Thanks to the audit that takes place between Election Day and canvass, the board of elections had found the mistake and accounted for it early Wednesday morning.
“After Election Day, we began a 10-day process to canvass that is full of hard work, auditing, reconciliations, spot checks, hand to eye counts, lots of different things that we do,” said Jackson County Board of Elections Chairman Kirk Stephens. “Every county in North Carolina follows the same procedure. It’s very detailed. It’s very thorough, to go through and make sure that we have the most accurate results possible.”
The bottom line? Jackson County Board of Elections initially double-counted 523 mail-in ballots on election night. The first step in the audit process that begins the morning after Election Day involves comparing the number of people who voted — counted in voter authorization forms that every person fills out before they vote — to the number of votes counted. When the board saw that it had 523 more votes counted than the number of people who voted, they immediately knew what mistake had been made.
A total of 14,969 ballots were cast in Jackson County by the end of Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 8; an additional 136 provisional ballots are being investigated and could be counted on canvass day and 63 absentee vote by mail ballots were received between Election Day and Monday, Nov. 15, the last day mail-in ballots could be received. Nothing will be official until after canvass on Friday, Nov. 18. Stephens said he expects that most of the 136 provisional ballots will not be allowed to count, but that some of them will.
“We are all acutely aware that election night returns are emotional,” said Stephens. “And even though everybody says these are unofficial results, nobody really takes that to heart. I know it was emotional. So if there’s an apology to be made, I absolutely apologize. I apologize for the confusion. What we’re doing here, quite frankly, is more important than any candidate.”
While several members of the public had questions for the board at its Friday meeting, others thanked the board for its hard work on election night, and its effort to inform the public of the mistake that had been made, and how it was fixed.
“Thank you, guys,” one man said. “Election night, it was a very big ‘yay,’ and then ‘whoa.’ You know, it really was, and I’m thinking, maybe we need to get torches and pitchforks out. But at the end of the day, I know several of you on the board. I’ve known you guys my whole life. I know you’re honest people and I know that there was nothing really fishy. So thank you for your dedication. Thank you for allowing this meeting.”
There are two primary ways that people can vote in U.S. elections — mail in absentee voting and in-person voting. Any votes by mail must be postmarked by Election Day and must be received by the board of elections within three business days of Election Day. This year, because Friday was Veterans Day, the last day mail-in ballots could be received was Monday, Nov. 14.
According to Stephens, early voting, or one stop voting, is a form of absentee voting. In Jackson County there are five locations open for the 17 days of early voting leading up to Election Day.
On Election Day, there are 13 precincts where people can go vote. Most people can vote using a normal ballot on Election Day; however, if there are any concerns about registration, that person may have to vote by provisional ballot.
“On Election Day, some people show up to vote and there’s a question about whether or not they’re actually registered to vote. We are obligated and we want to count every vote that can legally be counted. So if there’s a question, we don’t just turn people away. We let them vote a provisional ballot,” said Stephens. “We’ll take your ballot, we’ll seal it in a special envelope. It’s a provisional and then it will come back to the board. During the period after the election day, the staff and the board of elections will investigate to see if that person can legally vote in Jackson County.”
Within the software that boards of elections use to record election night returns, there are four administration groups into which ballots are uploaded — absentee by mail, one-stop voting, Election Day votes and provisional ballots.
According to Stephens, Jackson County Board of Elections uploaded results from all five one-stop early voting locations and all the absentee vote by mail ballots that had already been received before 7:30 p.m. on Election Day so that when polls closed, there were instant results available for the votes that had been counted so far. As the night progressed, the board also uploaded Election Day votes from precincts around the county. At the end of the night, the board saw that there were no votes in the absentee vote by mail group in the software.
Unbeknownst to staff or board, those votes had not failed to upload the first time around, but for some reason had spread out into the precincts from which the votes came, rather than showing up in the absentee vote by mail section of the software. At the end of the night, when the board and staff saw that the absentee vote by mail group was empty, they once again uploaded those votes into the computer system. By doing so, the running totals for all 13 precincts changed.
“That’s where, in my opinion, the confusion started,” said Stephens. “At that point, we over-reported 523 votes. We’re still in the process. We can still fix this. We did over-report those 523 ballots. So what’s the next step? Well, the next step is let’s start a clean slate, which we’ve done.”
After reentering all available voting data, save provisional ballots and absentee votes not yet counted, the Board of Elections was able to present the most up-to-date, accurate results to members of the public at Friday’s meeting.
The only local race that changed once the vote data was reentered is the race for county commissioner in district two between Boyce Dietz and John Smith. On election night, results showed Dietz leading Smith 7,656 votes to 7,621. Data presented at the meeting Friday shows Smith leading Deitz 7,450 votes to 7,314. Smith has 50.46% of the vote, Deitz has 49.54%. If the margin of victory stays under 1 percentage point, Deitz would legally be allowed to call for a recount.
The margin of victory for some other races that appeared tight on election night widened after the overcount of mail-in absentee votes was accounted for. Initial results showed Republican candidate Mark Letson beating incumbent County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan by a mere six votes, only a .04% difference.
After the double-counted votes had been accounted for, data on Friday showed Letson leading McMahan 7,501 votes to 7,309. Though there are still votes to be counted, this puts the candidates outside of the single percentage point difference needed for a recount to be called.
Republican candidate for the district one seat on the County Commission, Todd Bryson, asked the Board of Elections whether or not there would be a recount in the race for County Commission Chairman, a possibility he said he had seen reported in local papers on election night, when the margin of victory was within one percentage point.
“Well, you can’t believe a newspaper,” said Stephens. “It’s inappropriate to talk about a recount until after canvass. At that period, the candidate has until 5 p.m. of the following business day to call for a recount.
In the race between incumbent commissioner Gayle Woody and Todd Bryson, initial election night results showed Bryson leading 7,828 to 7,507. Updated results show a larger lead with Bryson winning 7,655 votes to Woody’s 7,162.
Toward the end of the meeting, Stephens noted that although vote data had been updated in Jackson County, the results on the State Board of Elections website would remain the same until after canvas on Friday, Nov. 18.
“There’s one other thing I want to mention, and I want you to take from this meeting, and that is how lucky we are in Jackson County to have the poll workers that we have and one stop and early and Election Day,” said Stephens. “They are your friends and neighbors, most of them are seniors and retirees. They work a 13-hour day. They arrive between 30 and 60 minutes before polls open to get set up. They stay between 30 and 60 minutes after. So you’re talking realistically about a 15-hour day. They are champions of democracy. We are lucky to have them.”