Before the polls open on Election Day, more than 4.5 million North Carolinians will have already voted early in person or by mail. It’s those results that county elections offices are expected to post within an hour after the polls close Tuesday night.
State law allowed county election officials to begin processing in late September the mounds of mail-in ballots hitting their offices — more than 900,000 so far. No one will know totals until Tuesday, but the early work will speed reporting on election night, an advantage not all presidential battleground states enjoy.
“I will give both parties credit for making it possible for North Carolina not to have a mess on its hands on election night with regards to absentee ballots,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina.
In Pennsylvania, another East Coast presidential battleground state, officials cannot start processing mail-in ballots until Tuesday morning. The Pennsylvania secretary of state said last week that 73% of the 3 million mail ballots requested by voters in that state had been returned, Politico reported.
In North Carolina, it’s likely that about 97% of all ballots will be counted and reported election night, according to the state Board of Elections. “While the results are unofficial, the only races we won’t know for sure will be the really close ones,” board spokesman Patrick Gannon said in an interview last week. “All eyes should be on us at the close of polls on election night.”
North Carolina can count mail-in ballots that arrive on or before Nov. 12, though they must be postmarked on or before Nov. 3.
The state Board of Elections extended the deadline for mail ballots to reach elections offices from Nov. 6 to Nov. 12 as part of a lawsuit settlement. Republicans sued to restore the Nov. 6 deadline set out in state law, but the U.S. Supreme Court let the later deadline stand.
Gannon said ballots arriving after Election Day are expected to be a fraction of the total cast.
Unofficial results will be updated as local elections boards count absentee and provisional ballots after Tuesday.
North Carolina is known for close races. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won the state by a little more than 14,000 votes, or 0.3%. Four years later, Republican Mitt Romney won North Carolina by about 92,000 votes, or 2.04%.
Some of the closest races are expected in legislative contests, races where absentee and provisional ballot counts can make a difference in the outcome. The legislative races take on heightened importance this year because the next legislature will draw district boundaries for seats in Congress and the General Assembly.
“There are inevitably going to be close races in North Carolina, particularly on the legislative side,” Phillips said. “We are going to see razor-thin close races, just like we saw in 2018.”
Two years ago, incumbent Republican state Rep. Bill Brawley initially appeared to have eked out a victory over Democrat Rachel Hunt. But Hunt ended up winning Mecklenburg County House district by 68 votes after absentee and provisional ballots were counted.
Democrat Harper Peterson appeared to be leading incumbent Republican state Sen. Michael Lee by fewer than 40 votes on election night 2018, but the gap widened to a 231-vote margin in the official count.
As early voting set records in the state, an Elon University poll found lack of confidence in the elections process. For example, 63% of people surveyed said they were very concerned or somewhat concerned that mail-in voting leads to election fraud, 70% were worried about mail ballots being rejected, and 74% were concerned that violence would break out during the election.
While 67% said Vice President Joe Biden would accept the election results, only 43% said President Donald Trump would.
The survey of 1,259 North Carolina voters was conducted Oct. 22-24.
How long the skepticism lasts will depend on how politicians conduct themselves after the election, Judith Kelley, dean of the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy said in an email. “Most of the mistrust stems not from any underlying changes in the integrity of our system, but from political rhetoric on both sides,” she wrote. “Trump has deliberately sought to undermine confidence in the election so that he can claim he won regardless of the outcome. Trump has also hinted at unrest.
“Meanwhile, Democrats have cast doubt over the operations of the U.S. post office beyond what was warranted. Both sides have been contesting aspects of the voting process in the courts in the run-up to elections much more-so than usual. No wonder voters are weary.”
If all goes as planned, North Carolina’s election results will be finalized at the state canvass scheduled for Nov. 24.