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What If It's Really Close In North Carolina?

A picture of a voting sign.
Tom Arthur

As the 2016 election nears its end, the question of recounts and protests have arisen. While it’s impossible to predict who might demand a recount or file a protest, here are some guidelines about how such a process might happen.

Answers to each question are taken from North Carolina General Statutes, particularly in Article 15A, or N.C.G.S. 163-182:

Q: Who may call for a recount?
A: There are two guidelines to determine a recount:

  • For a non-statewide race, a recount may be demanded if the margin of victory is less than 1 percent of total ballots cast.
  • For a statewide race, the losing candidate may call for a recount if the margin of victory is 10,000 votes or less. Given that there will be close to 4.7 million votes cast in the presidential and gubernatorial races, this amounts to less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the total votes (about 0.21 percent).

Q: How is a recount conducted?
A: A first recount will be done electronically. If the results do not change, the losing candidate may demand a hand-to-eye count, meaning one in which humans count the ballots. This hand-to-eye method will be done in a sampling of 3 percent of precincts in each county, chosen at random, rounded up to the next whole number of precincts.

Q: Are all ballots in North Carolina filled out the same way?
A: No. In most counties, including Wake, Durham and Orange, voters physically fill in the bubble next to the candidate they wish to vote for on paper. In some counties, including Mecklenburg and Guilford, voters use a touch screen to cast their votes.

Q: What if the ink is too light on the ballot and the scanner doesn’t read an entry?
A: If an official ballot is rejected by a scanner, but human counters can clearly determine the voter’s choice, the ballot will count.

Q: May I watch the ballot counting?
A: Any member of the public wishing to witness the vote count at any level may do so, however, witnesses may not participate in the official counting of ballots.

Q: I’ve heard this term “canvass.” What does that mean?
A: The term "canvass" means the entire process of determining that the votes have been counted and tabulated correctly, culminating in the authentication of the official election results. A canvass is performed by each board of election at the county level, completed by 11 a.m. on the 10th day after every election, or the Friday of the next week, Nov. 18 this year. The state board of elections then meets on the following Tuesday, Nov. 22 this year, to authenticate the election.
Historically, candidates typically concede victory before this happens, though not in all cases.

Q: Who may file a protest of the election?
A: A protest concerning the conduct of an election may be filed by any registered voter or any candidate.

Q: How can I file a protest?
A: Protests must be filed with the county board of elections, signed with the protester's name, address, and telephone number and state whether the protest concerns the manner in which votes were counted and results tabulated or concerns some other irregularity. The protest should also state what remedy the protester is seeking.

Q: What is the deadline to file a protest?
A: Generally, a protest must be submitted before the beginning of the county board of election's canvass meeting. There are some cases in which someone may file a protest up to two business days after the canvass meeting.

Q: What happens if a protest is filed?
A: The county board of elections meets as soon as possible to determine the merits of the protest. If the board finds merit, it schedules a hearing and gives proper notification to those involved. During the hearing, the board may allow evidence to be presented and may examine witnesses. The board has the power to subpoena witnesses or documents, and witnesses must be placed under oath before testifying.
After the hearing, the board determines a findings of fact. With those findings, the board then applies law, either dismissing the protest, or finding that a violation of election law or other misconduct occurred. The parties involved may appeal the county board’s findings to the State Board of Elections. Depending on the severity of the findings, the state board could ultimately order a new election.

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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