Under state law, Raleigh mayoral candidate Charles Francis has until noon Thursday, October 19, to decide whether to request a runoff against incumbent Nancy McFarlane. Under a different state law, however, early voting for the November 8 election is scheduled to start Thursday morning—before Francis has to actually make a decision—which would seem to make the balloting process somewhat difficult. (Francis says he’ll make an announcement Monday, so perhaps the Board of Elections will be off the hook.)
The whole snafu originated with ongoing efforts by state legislators to make it more difficult for black people to vote, according to court findings, as well as to vet ballots more thoroughly.
It started with the 2013 state statute that restricted voting rights of African Americans with the often-cited "almost surgical precision,"
according to a federal court decision last year that struck down the law. Another state law passed in 2016 extended the time elections officials had to carry out detailed investigations in the interest of making sure lawfully cast ballots were counted and fraudulent votes were excluded.
Lost in all that were the legally mandated dates for elections.
"As we have all understood, the challenges of this municipal election year are like no other municipal year," State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement Kim Strach said in a Wednesday email to county elections workers. "Early voting for November begins next Thursday, which means most of you will not only be preparing for canvass, but also preparing for early voting to begin three days after canvass."
In Mecklenburg County, in a slightly different situation, Charlotte City Council candidate Matt Newton put off his decision to ask for a second primary so long that early voting had to be delayed. He wound up winning the election on Tuesday.
"The law allowed him to have ability until twelve noon Thursday, ten days after the [primary] election," says Michael Dickerson, elections director in Mecklenburg County, whose staff worked through the weekend to prepare ballots. "By Monday morning, we were up and voting.”
Wake County elections officials don't think Francis will push it to the limit, but if he did, voters could be handed ballots without Francis's name on them.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Wake County Board of Elections director Gary Sims said Friday. "We're going to start on the early voting no matter what, because we have to."
The Wake County ballot for the November 8 election will include races in several municipalities — Angier, Apex, Durham, Fuquay-Varina, Garner, Holly Springs, Knightdale, Morrisville, Rolesville, Wake Forest, Wendell, and Zebulon—as well as the possible runoff in Raleigh.
Sims says Francis, who got 36.67 percent of the vote compared to McFarlane's 48.45 percent, has said he will work with Wake election officials to avoid a worst-case scenario. Francis said this week that he wants to the see the results of Monday's canvass of votes before he decides.
Just the possibility of Outcome X had the memos flying at the State Board of Elections. Strach
had seen the conflict between the laws coming and tried in April to get the General Assembly to fix it, but a bill making the necessary changes never made it out of committee.
The events that led to this passage began with the legislature's passage of the omnibus voting provisions bill in 2013. It contained provisions on voter ID but also reduced the number of early voting days from seventeen to ten. Those days were restored after the Fourth Circuit decision striking it down.
In 2016, the General Assembly sprang back into action, passing another law that “extended the canvass period, allowing the state board to conduct more extensive post-election audits that help ensure election integrity,” according to board spokesman Patrick Gannon.
“These two things changed, while municipal election dates, fixed in statute, did not,” Gannon says in an email. “That created an overlap between the canvass for September elections and the start of early voting for October elections, as well as an overlap between the canvass for October and early voting for November.”
The canvass process accounts for all ballots cast to make sure they are valid and are included in the official tally.
Legislators didn't make wholesale changes to fix the conflict among dates, but they inserted a provision in the budget’s technical correction bill that allowed the state elections director “to reduce the canvass period by whatever amount of time the Executive Director believes is necessary in order to ensure orderly elections on the election schedule otherwise required by law.”
reduced the canvass period to six from ten days.