VOTE CANVASS

Chatham makes midterm results official

Board applauds high voter turnout and staff efforts, still spotlighting county deficiencies

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The Chatham County Board of Elections certified results from the 2022 midterms during its Friday canvass, closing the chapter on yet another election season.

Board members gathered at the county office in Pittsboro for the canvass, the process of authenticating official election results and determining that all votes have been counted and tabulated correctly. Every county board in North Carolina holds a canvass on the 10th day after Election Day.

As the News + Record previously reported, Democrats swept across Chatham this year, winning seats on the state level in the N.C. General Assembly and on the county level for sheriff, the board of commissioners and the board of education. 

This year saw a continuation of record high voter turnout in Chatham — 65.97% of registered voters, or 39,600 individuals, participated in the electoral process for the midterms. 

And while board members celebrated the feat, applauding county staff for their contributions to encouraging voter participation, they also highlighted areas of deficiency with staff support, calling to add another one-stop voting location in North Chatham and for more county resources to be devoted to the elections office. 

Specifically, the board underscored a need to improve IT services and lighten the workload for staff in Chatham’s elections office, which has just three full-time employees. 

“This office is the shining star for the state of North Carolina, and I don’t want to lose that,” board member Mark Barroso said. “And we’re in jeopardy of losing that, because these people can’t work any harder — they need help.”

Results, no recount in BOE race

The Chatham Board of Education race in Dist. 3 between incumbent Del Turner and challenger Jessica Winger ultimately did not result in a recount following the county board of elections’ meeting to approve absentee and provisional ballots, which was also held last week on Thursday. The numbers remained close through Election Night, with Turner maintaining a 462-vote lead, remaining 1.35 points ahead of Winger. 

Winger could have called for a recount if the margin was within 1%, but after counting the more than 350 absentee and provisional ballots, Turner’s margin of victory grew to 1.4%. She received 162 additional votes while Winger received 156.

Winger did not respond to questions from the News + Record regarding whether she intended to call for a recount prior to the canvass.

Breaking down the voting

Ultimately, in Chatham, 3,057 people utilized absentee voting, which included absentee-by-mail, overseas citizen and military ballots. 

In Chatham, 10,634 residents voted on Election Day. In comparison, 25,866 people submitted ballots at one-stop voting sites in the county during the 17-day period for early voting, mirroring national trends as the 2022 election saw record numbers for midterm early voting. 

And of the 160 provisional ballots received by the county, the board approved 43 ballots. 

Provisional ballots are a fail-safe method of voting; individuals may receive a provisional ballot if questions arise regarding a person’s qualifications to vote, ranging from not having a record of registration to having an unrecognized address. Provisional ballots are held aside while election officials conduct research to determine voter eligibility, and election results are only finalized once the status of the ballots has been determined.   

Absentee ballot challenge

Prior to certifying the 2022 midterm results, Chatham’s board also oversaw a challenge to a mail-in ballot in which the voter sent in their absentee ballot during the early voting period but died before Election Day. 

Deputy Director of Elections Steve Simos said staff found out the voter died a few days prior to Election Day, after receiving a list from the county register of deeds and checking it against the voter list. 

In accordance with state law, staff filed the challenge and sent a letter on Election Day to the voter’s address to ensure there were no administrative errors. Because the county did not hear back with objections and none were presented at the canvass, the board moved to sustain the challenge, pulled the ballot and removed the deceased individual’s votes from the total count. 

The process of removing votes from the total count required multiple steps and bipartisan observation. First, board members Frank Dunphy II, a Republican, and Barroso, a Democrat, watched as members of the county’s IT department manually removed the votes using Verity Count, a standalone computer that reads thumb drives from the scanner that voters insert their ballots into for counting. The Verity Count system is not connected to the internet, and a clean thumb drive must be inserted into the computer to extract the votes that are eventually uploaded to the state’s reporting system.

After observing the manual removal of votes, Dunphy, Barroso, Chairperson Laura Heise and Elections Director Pandora Paschal checked the physical ballot of the deceased voter against the new total for votes in the county, going race by race to ensure the system had made the appropriate changes.

“Everything we do is tedious,” Paschal told the CN+R at the close of Friday’s canvass. “Because all eyes are on us, we have to make sure that we cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i.’” 

Finally, board members signed off on certifying the results as Paschal uploaded the official canvass report and prepared to mail a hard copy to the state board of elections office in Raleigh.

Reflecting on election season

Board members also spent much of Friday’s canvass reflecting on what led this election season to be successful and where improvements could be made. Most of the discussion revolved around what members perceived as a lack of resources for staff. 

Dunphy began his comments by pointing out technological issues that occurred at the board’s last three meetings, including Friday’s canvass. The board had to move around its agenda, delaying the removal of votes from the deceased voter’s absentee ballot because county IT staff were waiting on an external hard drive to be brought to the Chatham Board of Elections office to archive voting totals before any changes were made. 

“Now, I’m just going to say it here and it’s maybe embarrassing, but I’m going to say it — I think we have an information technology deficiency in this office,” Dunphy said. 

He pointed to a computer deficiency on Election Night, in which the board had to wait an hour for repair, and to an issue the board had printing out a report during the absentee/provisional ballot meeting.  

Simos attributed the delay in printing the report to a miscommunication between the board and the IT department, as the way the board had requested the results be printed differed from the default that most states use. He stated the issue would be corrected for the next election. 

Simos also addressed the delay with the external hard drive, saying the hard drive is purposefully kept off site as a protection measure.

“The external hard drive is kept off the board of elections [office], in case anything happens to the board of elections office and that machine goes down, catch fire, or whatever and all that, we always have a backup of an external hard drive that’s off site,” he said. 

Board members clarified that they felt the issues were not the fault of current staff at the elections office, and recognized the limited bandwidth the three full-time employees face.

Barroso said the board has struggled with getting adequate resources from county commissioners to support funding positions in the elections office.

“I don’t want to be too drastic about it, but it’s critical that we keep up with the growth of this county, [that] this office does in terms of staffing and expertise,” Barroso said.  

Staff agreed that they faced certain constraints with the limited number of employees in the elections office, and noted the benefits that adding IT personnel and someone to assist with training poll workers would have. 

“Getting additional resources in here frees us up to do additional voter outreach,” Simos said. “I think one of the biggest problems we have not just in Chatham County, but in the state, is there’s not enough voter outreach programs out there.

“If we can get more voter outreach to our citizens, and the high school kids that are learning how to vote, that will, in turn, be a positive and help us when people vote and know what they’re supposed to be doing,” Simos continued. “But because we’re so strained with lack of resources at our office and constrained, we can’t do that.”

Board members also discussed what they saw as a need for another site to be added in North Chatham during early voting, aside from the current one-stop site at the Central Carolina Community College Chatham Health Sciences Center.

“I don’t think there was a day [when] there wasn’t a line at North Chatham,” Elections Specialist Chance Mashburn said.

Heise said that the board is able to demand the use of government-funded or -owned buildings, but other than public schools and CCCC, there aren’t any such buildings in North Chatham. The board discussed different options of expanding the CCCC site, which saw 10,910 voters during the early voting period, the highest of any site in the county by several thousands of voters, but several board members ultimately agreed that the construction of a community center in North Chatham could fulfill the role of a one-stop site. 

“We’re having a bigger turnout than we’ve had in previous elections for early voting, so it’s only going to get worse at that site,” Heise said. 

Simos also suggested training more people to serve as back-up judges at precincts, in case an individual cannot make it to the site in person — an issue that Mashburn underscored earlier in the meeting. 

Mashburn said there was a “highly unusual number” of poll workers who had to drop out in early voting, mostly due to health issues, conflicting doctor’s appointments or emergencies that cropped up.

Still, there was much to applaud with the election cycle, with Simos saying he thought the process went fairly well considering the county’s high voter turnout. 

“I was happy with our chief judges, I was extremely happy with our site managers, they did a good job,” Simos said. “I was happy with emergency management and the sheriff’s office, they did a good job backing us up if we needed something. So there’s always improvements we can make, but I think we’re heading in the right direction.”

Reporter Maydha Devarajan can be reached at mdevarajan@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @maydhadevarajan.

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