Raleigh, North Carolina – Heading into Election Day, many were hopeful that since North Carolina had already started to process its early and absentee ballots, the state could know the winner of the United States presidential race earlier than most other battleground states.
By midnight, however, it was clear that North Carolina voters and the rest of the US would not only be in for a long night, but a days-long wait, as the state’s race emerged as one too close to call.
That is largely because absentee ballots sent before a state submission deadline may still be making their way to county election boards.
“North Carolina stopped counting votes on election night because there were no more votes to count at that time,” Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the state’s Board of Elections, said during a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.
“There are also no more ballots that can be cast for election. All eligible ballots have already left the voters’ hands.”
Here’s a look at the state of play in North Carolina, which carries 15 electoral votes:
With all precincts reporting, President Donald Trump is leading Democrat Joe Biden 49.98 percent to 48.57 percent, or by about 76,701 votes, according to the state board of elections’ unofficial results.
Despite Trump declaring victory in the state early on Wednesday, the race is still too close to call due to more than 100,000 outstanding absentee ballots.
There are about 117,000 absentee ballots that have not been returned. If postmarked by Election Day, they can still be counted if they arrive by 5pm (22:00 GMT) on November 12.
It should be noted that these are the total number of absentee ballots requested, but not yet returned.
It is unclear how many of these ballots have been filled out and sent in. Voters also had the option to vote in person, even if they had requested an absentee ballot.
Brison Bell said on Wednesday afternoon that the totals likely won’t change until November 12 or 13.
That’s also true for the US Senate race in the state between Republican Senator Thom Tillis and Democrat Cal Cunningham. Current unofficial results show Tillis with a slim lead over Cunningham.
We also don’t yet know the total of provisional ballots used on Election Day. The board of elections is expected to announce the total number handed out on Thursday.
The State Board of Elections, meanwhile, is expected to meet on November 24 to certify the election.
The short answer is there are several avenues for a challenge, but they would be complicated, and time is running out.
It would be “a major undertaking for Trump to successfully change the North Carolina voting outcome,” said Irving Joyner, a law professor at North Carolina Central University.
The question mark right now is whether Trump wins after the November 12 deadline for absentee ballots.
If the president is still in the lead after those totals comes in, many analysts do not expect a challenge, unless the margin is razor thin. If Biden manages to win with those absentee ballots, then Trump and the Republican Party could mount an effort to challenge those votes, but it would be a “major” fight, analysts say.
Remember, it was just last week that the US Supreme Court in a 5-3 decision allowed absentee ballots in North Carolina to be received and counted up to nine days after Election Day. Under state law, absentee ballots, postmarked by Election Day, can still be counted if received within three days of the election (That would have meant November 6). But the state’s Board of Elections extended the deadline due to the coronavirus pandemic. Notably, newly-sworn in Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part in the case.
There are currently two actions still in play in North Carolina, one in state court and one in federal court that challenge the changes to the rules for mail-in absentee ballots, said Andy Hessick, a law professor at UNC School of Law. Those actions could still be decided, but if they aren’t moved on quickly, they will likely become moot due to election certification deadlines.
The GOP could also launch another effort to get the Supreme Court to take another look at the extension.
Rick Su, another professor at the UNC School of Law, said he believes Trump and the Republicans “may be emboldened and sort of feeling pretty good about the results coming out.”
“But if everything comes down to it, I can see them acting fast and the court acting fast. Essentially they would be raising the same appeal [to the Supreme Court]. And just hoping that Barrett would provide them the vote that they need,” Su said.
Trump and the Republicans could try to take other actions if new facts surrounding voter misconduct surface.
But “unless he comes up with a new theory, and it would have to be some facts that we just know right now, … he is going to be relying on the existing cases, and those cases, … the clock is very much against him right now,” Hessick concluded.
In terms of any potential recount, a presidential or US Senate candidate in North Carolina can request a recount if he/she lost by either 10,000 votes or half a percentage point, whichever is lesser.
North Carolina saw record turnout this year. As of Wednesday morning, 74.5 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in North Carolina. The turnout was about 68.98 percent in 2016.
“The turnout in North Carolina of nearly 75 percent is fantastic,” said Whitney Ross Manzo, a political science professor at Meredith College.
“I’m so glad to see North Carolinians exercising their rights, and that all the fears of voter suppression appear to be unfounded,” she told Al Jazeera.
“No matter which side you think should win, that’s a win for democracy.”