The waiting truly is the hardest part.

As election results trickle out, North Carolinians are watching, trying to make sense of which ballots we’re counting, which races are safe to predict, and which races may flip. 

Prolonged ballot counting doesn’t necessarily equal election fraud, experts say, but a little clarity in reporting from the N.C. State Board of Elections would go a long way toward alleviating distrust and discouraging conspiracy theories among voters. 

The problems can be traced to October, said Dallas Woodhouse, strategic initiatives director at the Civitas Institute and former head of the N.C. GOP. That’s when Democratic super-litigator Marc Elias worked out a back-room deal with the Democrat-led elections board and Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein. The deal — made just weeks before Elections Day — extended North Carolina’s mail-in ballot deadline six days. That gave election officials until Nov. 12 to count any ballots postmarked by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3. 

State law set a Nov. 6 deadline to count ballots postmarked by Election Day, which the Elias settlement negated. Republicans challenged the deal with several lawsuits, but the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the extended deadline. 

“It is not helpful to the process, ever, to change the rules late in the game,” Woodhouse told Carolina Journal. “Especially when it is done administratively and over the will of the people.”

The state remains in limbo, and Republican candidates with thin leads are waiting to see if their races will be affected by the outstanding ballots. The contest for chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court is especially tight. Republican Paul Newby was leading Democratic incumbent Cheri Beasley by about 3,000 votes at the close of Election Day. As of Wednesday, Nov. 11, his lead dropped to 946 votes. 

It’s been more than a week since Election Day, and three groups of ballots remain uncounted, said Andy Jackson, election policy analyst at Civitas. As of Monday, Nov. 9, county boards were counting more than 35,000 absentee ballots received on or after Nov. 3, between 20,000 and 30,000 provisional ballots, and close to 6,000 absentee ballots that need “curing” — a process to correct mistakes or omissions made by the voter. Both Newby and Beasley have been working to cure ballots that belong to their respective voters, as the law allows. 

The wait is creating an unprecedented level of voter anxiety. The N.C. GOP, rife with concern that Democrats are unfairly collecting votes for wins in slim races, is aiming criticism about transparency at the elections board. The board says it’s being transparent and fair while reporting on ballot counts. Then, there’s us. Average voters with kids, jobs, and lives. We’d like to move on, resolve our issues, and work on whatever’s next. But we’re stuck. Watching, waiting, and worrying over results that were always going to be a tangled mess due to the Elias settlement.  

A major issue, said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst at the John Locke Foundation, is that ballot results are being delivered to the public in piecemeal format. Updates are delivered, but the results are published here and there as counties tabulate votes. 

That’s how the process has always worked, Pat Gannon, an elections board spokesman, told CJ

“The results will continue to change daily as counties count additional absentee and provisional ballots and upload them to the state system,” Gannon wrote in an email that included links to several news releases about county updates and unofficial election results. 

In a news release Wednesday, Nov. 11, the elections board laid out four facts about its ballot-counting process. “It’s the law,” the board said of a canvass “that occurs after every election.” Canvass meetings are scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 13. The objective of those meetings is to ensure ballots have been counted correctly and audits have been completed. 

All eligible ballots must be counted, the board said, and that includes any ballot postmarked on or before Election Day — so long as it arrives at the local elections board by 5 p.m. Nov. 12. The results of the election must be audited.

Most important, the board said, “Election officials do not call results.” The races aren’t official until Nov. 24, when the state board certifies them. Barring any new lawsuits, of course.

North Carolina’s election system was never designed to handle the strain of this many mail-in votes, Jackson told CJ. And while the elections website is being updated with some data, key information is missing. For example, the elections board website shows the outstanding number of absentee ballots at 93,000. But the number hasn’t been updated to subtract voters who requested absentee ballots, yet showed up to vote in person

That’s disappointing, Woodhouse told CJ. If the board had provided that information, then federal elections would’ve been called much sooner, and voter anxiety might’ve eased. 

“We all desire people to have confidence in the result, no matter who won or who lost,” Woodhouse said. 

As for how North Carolina can prevent other settlements like the one between the elections board and Elias? 

“I don’t have an answer to that, other than to specifically forbid them under state law,” Woodhouse said. 

So far as fraud goes, no election is without fraud in some form, Jackson said. 

“The question is whether there is evidence of fraud sufficient to potentially alter the outcome of the election,” Jackson said in a tweet Nov. 10. “So far, it does not look like there is.”

For now, there’s no good answer. All we can do is wait, and will our nerves to settle down.