There are times when citizens should be angry with election officials. For example, people were properly up in arms when the State Board of Elections (SBE) twice tried to illegally suppress election observers over the past few years. Another example is when the SBE participated in a “Sue and Settle” scheme to alter election laws just before the 2020 election.

Are we witnessing another instance when we should be concerned with the SBE’s conduct after its rough start with reporting early voting for the March 5 primary?

The General Assembly reorganized early voting as part of Senate Bill 747, passed into law over Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto last October. Before that reorganization, early voting had legally been a subset of absentee voting and officially called “one-stop” or “one-stop absentee” voting (because you could request your ballot and vote in one stop at the early voting site). (People had informally called it “early voting” long before the official change.) With the passage of SB 747, early voting became its own category and was officially renamed “early voting.” Every reference to “one-stop” was removed from state law; see the figure below for an example:

Detail of Senate Bill 747 showing references to “one-stop” changed to “early voting” in North Carolina law. Highlights are added.

SBE officials had several months to figure out how to match the change in the legal designation of early voting in their data files. However, they were caught flat-footed when it came time to report data from the first day of early voting on Feb. 15. Rather than report those ballots as “early voting,” the SBE reported all the roughly 33,000 early voting ballots as “mail.” It is unknown whether the misreporting was due to a mistake in their code or if they had not thought about how to handle the designation change and coded early votes as “mail” because they had no other option.

By the next day, they started coding early voting as “early voting.”

There are also the little but noticeable data errors that crop up every election. As of Feb. 21, the SBE reported eight votes cast in the Green Party primary and three cast in the No Labels Party primary, even though neither party has a primary in North Carolina. There have also been instances of election officials listing registered Republicans requesting Democratic primary ballots and vice-versa, which is not allowed under North Carolina law.

How do we explain these problems? Is this an example of “tricks” played by the SBE, perhaps as a cover for data manipulation?

I believe Hanlon’s razor is useful here. Like its more famous cousin, Occam’s razor, Hanlon’s razor is a mental tool to help us think about situations more clearly. Its most common formulation is, “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” German author Johann Goethe offered a more generous and less absolute version:

Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.

There is a natural tendency to ascribe organized malicious intent to actions that harm or confound us. Rather than assume that someone intended harm with their actions, the more straightforward explanation often is that the person did so out of ignorance or because they made a mistake.

How does that apply to the data problems we have seen from the SBE?

Election officials have been busy preparing for the March 5 primary, adding tens of thousands of registrations to the voter rolls (including people who preregistered to vote), and adjusting to new election laws. With all that going on, it is not hard to imagine that SBE officials simply forgot to update their early voting data procedures.

As for the problems with improper data entry, election officials enter tens of thousands of lines of data every day of early voting. It is hardly surprising if some of those entries were entered incorrectly. It would be a problem only if the errors were all in the same direction and were numerous enough to affect the outcome of an election. Most of those errors are correct by the time votes are officially counted.

Understanding how the system works and applying Hanlon’s razor will help us avoid being outraged at things that are not actual problems, so we can direct our attention against real outrages.