In a Pandemic Election, What You Should and Shouldn’t Expect on Election Day in NC

FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, file photo, a forklift operator loads absentee ballots for mailing at the Wake County Board of Elections as preparations for the upcoming election are ongoing in Raleigh, N.C. Weeks from the election, three of North Carolina’s most populous counties are often taking two weeks or more to send absentee ballots out to voters who request them. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

By Sarah Ovaska

October 14, 2020

Where can you get the up-to-date results? How long will it take to count the votes? And will any winners be declared on Election Day? Your questions answered here.

We’re in the home stretch, North Carolina, of this nonstop, high-stakes and unprecedented election year.

Hopefully you’ve voted, either by mail or during the 17 straight days of early voting from Oct. 15 to Oct. 31. If not, make your plan now on how you plan on taking part in democracy before polls close at 7:30 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3.

Now it’s time to talk about what North Carolina’s election results are going to look like as the information comes in and how this year will likely differ from past elections.

How to Keep Track of Results

This might be a long night, so fuel up with whatever you need. (Election Night pizza is always a good choice).

There are several ways you can keep track of North Carolina’s election night results. The major broadcast and 24-hour news networks (CNN, ABC, NBC, FOX, etc.) will likely have their breathless coverage of the national landscape and the big ticket results in our swing state, but don’t expect to see them drill down deep into NC’s state-level or down-ticket races.

For that, you need to shop local.  

RELATED: Cardinal Votes: Your Guide to Voting in North Carolina in 2020

There are plenty of reputable sources here in North Carolina to keep track of the election results that will begin to be released as early as 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

The best place to go, and the one whose website that journalists and political observers will be refreshing all night, is the NC State Board of Elections website. This is who each county reports its results to, and in turn the state releases the information to the public in real time.

Television stations, newspapers and online news websites in each media market will have the down-ticket information you are interested in as well as reporting results on presidential, US Senate and the gubernatorial races. Here is a list of television stations , an interactive map of NC’s newspapers and a list of online news sources across the state.

And, of course, we will be doing our best over here at Cardinal & Pine to keep you in the loop as well.

Prepare Yourself for a Delay

First, realize that this year has been a year chock full of “never before” scenarios thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the incredibly competitive election between Democrats and Republicans on the federal and state level.

That means you could very well head to bed election night and not know which presidential candidate won North Carolina or the Electoral College, or if we’ll have Democrats in charge of the US Senate or Republicans.

“It means the process is working. We count everyone’s vote,” says Gerry Cohen, who serves on the Wake County Board of Elections. 

Cohen’s considered one of the state’s most knowledgeable experts on election processes because of his three-plus decades as legal counsel for the state legislature.  

On Election Night, there will be results available from many of the state’s voters, but not all. Not in that final tally will be absentee ballots that came in on the final days but postmarked by Nov. 3, ballots sent from military serving overseas; and provisional ballots. Provisional ballots are cast on Election Day, but they require a review before being tallied. Often, this includes ballots cast in the wrong precinct. 

And if a race is close, as is expected in the very purple state of North Carolina, that means you might knock off for the night that Tuesday not knowing who won.

In 2004, the race for state superintendent between Democrat June Atkinson and Republican Bill Fletcher hung on provisional votes, and after a convoluted legal back and forth, was sent back to the legislature to clear up (Atkinson won). 

Then, in 2016’s race for governor, Democrat Roy Cooper was not officially declared the victor over his Republican rival, then-Gov. Pat McCrory, for almost a month after Election Day.

Will coronavirus affect how results come in?

All that said, North Carolina is in a lot better shape than many other swing states when it comes to processing what will likely be a record number of voters, Cohen said.

Absentee ballots, or voting by mail, are processed as they come in, more or less, meaning that nearly all of the absentee ballots that have been received by the state’s 100 county boards of elections will be released after the polls close.

Most years, that amounts to a small fraction of voters—less than 50,000 in 2016. But as we all know, 2020 is different. More than 505,000 of the state’s nearly 7.3 million registered voters had cast their ballots by mail as of Oct. 14, according to the state elections board

As many as 25% of expected North Carolina voters said they would so by mail this election season, and 47% during the early voting period, according to a Meredith College poll conducted in late September.

The results of those early and absentee ballots are typically released online soon after the polls close statewide at 7:30 p.m.

“We’re likely to have most people’s results right up front on election night,” Cohen said.

Then, county boards will collect and certify the Election Day results, and those start coming out around 8:30 pm or 9 pm.

So, we could potentially have almost three-quarters of North Carolina’s voting results released at the start of the evening. Up to 90% of ballots could be tallied by the end of the night.

Some Twists and Turns

There may be some changes to this come election day, if issues pop up at precincts.

If a precinct anywhere in the state is for some reason unable to stay open the entire time, which could happen if say the power goes out for an hour or something of that nature, the State Board of Elections will likely extend the hours to vote in that precinct. In those cases, the board will also delay any information about election results for that same period of time.

In some situations, there will be people still online waiting to vote at 7:30 pm. Those people still get to vote, but the state board won’t hold off on releasing the early vote and absentee tally while people standing in line get their ballots in, Cohen said.

But the big takeaway is that North Carolina has processes in place to make sure those votes are counted.

So, the only thing left to do is get out there and vote.


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