'FAIR AND LEGITIMATE RESULTS'

Voter integrity protected here, Chatham’s elections director says

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Free elections and election integrity are essential pillars of American democracy, but Chatham County’s elections director says she tells skeptics and those who make inquiries about the voting process that she’s confident that every vote counts.

Pandora Paschal, who’s been the executive director of the board of elections for the last 13 years, says her answer to questions about integrity in the local process has been consistent over the years.

“I believe we produce fair and legitimate results, and as a matter of fact, I know we do,” Paschal said. “Looking at elections in Chatham County, we’ve had some of the highest voter turnout [in the state]. I think that speaks volumes for the participation and also the trust factor. I don’t think people would be voting in a process if they didn’t trust it.”

While curious inquiries about the election process have always existed, they’ve increased since the 2020 presidential election. Misinformation surrounding aspects of voting — ranging from the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, poll observers’ duties and more — arose after former President Donald Trump claimed, falsely, that election was “stolen” from him, and some prominent Republican leaders and allies joined him in making claims of widespread voter fraud.

A total of 139 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives voted on Jan. 6, 2021, to object the Electoral College count, and in addition, tens of thousands of Trump’s supporters raided the U.S. Capitol to attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power — with some rioters carrying firearms, makeshift handcuffs and using banners and flags as weapons to force their way inside.

Even today, most polls show that roughly two-thirds of Republicans don’t see Joe Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential race; a third say violence may be necessary to “save” the country.

Despite claims of fraud across the country, Paschal says fraud or cheating hasn’t occurred in Chatham’s elections. She said the state’s election laws lay out a system of checks and balances to ensure results are secure and accurate.

“We have a tendency sometimes to believe what we hear, and then sometimes, we still don’t believe what we see,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to try to persuade someone who has that belief there’s fraud.”

Ballot tabulators and counters

Paschal said the most common question she gets are about electronic tabulators used to count ballots.

Some Chatham residents have expressed concerns, she said, regarding the devices, especially in an era defined by cyberattacks and hacking. Paschal said none of the machines used to tabulate, calculate and upload the results are connected to the internet. In fact, she said, there are physical seals on each machine to deter anyone from physically tampering with the tabulators and electronic poll books until it’s time to count votes.

In-person early voting sites house tabulators overnight in secured, secret locations to make sure machines can’t be tampered with.

Paschal said there are also audits conducted by the county’s five-member board of elections during the “canvassing” phase of result calculation, which involves counting the ballots of randomly selected groups from each of Chatham’s voting precincts. In these audits, the board wants to make sure the number of ballots matches the machines’ count.

It takes days to audit and certify an election, she said, which is why results are considered unofficial for the first couple of weeks following Election Day. In North Carolina, elections are expected to be certified by Nov. 18, the final day of the canvassing period.

“Voter history has to be extracted the day after the election for us to upload it,” Paschal said. “[We need] to see everybody who voted, and we have to audit that as well so the voter history should match the total number of votes and ballots cast.”

Paschal said during her time in Chatham County, there have been very few discrepancies between the machine and the board’s hand count. At most, the machines have been off by just a couple of votes, which was due in part to human error, according to Paschal.

“Sometimes it’s a human poll worker error where they didn’t click the vote button when the voter put their ballot in the machine, but we can fix that manually,” Paschal said. “Somebody may also want to go to their regular precinct (on Election Day) after filing a provisional ballot. We can see where they voted twice, and you can cancel one ballot. So that’s why we have the canvas period, because we’re still auditing actively.”

Poll workers and observers

Poll workers and observers also play a critical role in the voting process, and each serve at different capacities at polling locations across the county.

The board of elections hires its own part-time poll workers, each of which acts as a nonpartisan mediator to help move the voting process along smoothly; the political parties in Chatham County will also choose poll observers to watch the voting process at each precinct.

“They check the voters in at the check-in station, they also issue the ballots, and then we’ll have a help station … for any issues we may have with registrations or any other problems that we may have,” Paschal said.

Chatham County also offers curbside voting for residents who have mobility issues or feel ill on voting days. These stations are manned by the board of elections’ trained hired officials; training for those workers is underway now in preparation for this year’s election.

“It’s not our job to determine the reason that they’re voting in their car,” Paschal said. “If you read the oath, they understand the oath, they sign the oath, bring them a ballot — it’s not our job to determine why they’re in the car voting.”

Poll observers are different from workers hired by the board of elections. Observers are appointed by each of the political parties in the county to observe the election process. According to North Carolina election statutes, anyone can be a poll observer, but only those appointed by the political parties are allowed to be inside the polling location.

“They’re allowed to look … and they can get the voters names if they want to, but they are not allowed to interfere with the process,” Paschal said. “They can’t be getting up, going over to the tables — they can’t even go talk to the voters. Most of the observers we have never done that.”

‘Come to the office to see’

Paschal said she wants her office to be a place where residents can come and have questions answered regarding the elections process. In fact, she said the public is always invited to come to meetings held at the board of elections to see the process themselves.

“We don’t have a lot of people attend our board meetings,” she said. “So my suggestion would be to attend the meeting, come to the office to see what we do.”

At the end of the day, Paschal said her board isn’t there to advocate for any sort of partisan agenda. They’re there to ensure election results are tallied in a fair and legitimate process laid out by North Carolina statute.

“Everybody has the right to pick who they want to vote for — whoever you vote for on your ballot, that’s your prerogative,” she said. “We provide the ballot, then we count the votes, and we go through all these audits scanning and picking things through.”

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at theeden@chathamnr.com.

NEXT WEEK: In partnership with a number of other media outlets, the News + Record will provide a special report on one new group’s efforts to use old tactics to hunt for voter fraud — burdening elections officials along the way.

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