Most voters in Buncombe County fill out a paper ballot and feed it into a machine that tallies the vote and shows the total number of accepted ballots, providing the voter with a sense of finality. But that's a small part of the process.
The staff's long list of tasks and deadlines includes: helping local candidates file campaign finance paperwork, recruiting and training poll workers, finding early voting locations, creating and proofreading ballots, staying current on state law, setting up polls, tallying unofficial results, researching and counting provisional ballots and absentee ballots, certifying results and, finally, recounting if necessary.
For most ballots, the simple scan is all that's required to add an individual vote to the total, although elections staff keep tabs on ballots in general for months to come, making sure they know the exact number and location of all completed and uncompleted ballots.
Thousands of ballots require additional attention. For example, a staffer has to tally the write-in candidates, reading and recording each handwritten entry. Someone reads every vote, even the ones for Mickey Mouse, Bigfoot or the entire family from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," as happened this year, explained Jennifer Sparks, election information specialist.
The outlandish ones get lumped into the miscellaneous category, but votes for real people who are registered to vote have to be tracked. Anyone who runs for office must be registered to vote.
Buncombe voters wrote in 3,461 candidates in the November election, and Sparks spent five days going through them, she said. Just over 1,500 were for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who was not on the ballot in North Carolina, but the remainder represented a hodge-podge assortment.
Write-in votes are one of many reasons a ballot will require staff attention. Sometimes ballots are ripped or wrinkled and the machine can't read them. Other times, staff discovers a voter's registration is not verified and has to figure out what to do with the ballot.
Sometimes poll workers flag problematic ballots, lumping them into the provisional category. Staff spends days sorting through these ballots. An affidavit describing the voter is on the outside, but the votes are sealed in an envelope that can only be opened by the county Board of Elections in a public meeting.
The reasons ballots become provisional are as unique as the voter who casts them. Sometimes, voters are simply confused about the process. This year, a Buncombe man cast an absentee ballot, got worried it was lost in the mail, and went to an early voting site and cast another ballot. Staff discovered he had voted twice and removed one of the ballots.
In several instances, staff had to sort out confusion that arose from fathers and sons with the same name. Junior accidentally cast a ballot using senior's registration. Staffers called everyone involved, figured out what went wrong and corrected the count.
In the case of invalid and duplicate ballots, votes need to be removed from the overall count. Other times, ballots from the provisional pool need to be added. A process is in place to ensure staffers don't know whose votes they're adding or deducting.
A four-person bipartisan team — two Republicans and two Democrats — transfers ballots to a tally sheets, and Sparks enters the tallies into tally software as a camera looks on.
Staff received more than 140,000 ballots in the general election, the most Buncombe residents have ever cast. More than 1,000 were flagged for individual consideration in public meetings.
Source: Citizen Times