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Behind the scenes at Guilford County board of elections

by Amy Kingsley

A crowd of candidates and their supporters gathered in the Guilford County Board of Commissioners meeting room on the second floor of the Old County Courthouse at 8 p.m. on election night. They chatted and waited.

Down two flights of industrial stairs, in the unseasonable balm of the parking garage, the election staff also waited expectantly, like the stage crew warming the wings on opening night. A few minutes after the hour, cars started to roll into the parking garage carrying provisional ballots, cell phones and most importantly, PEBs ‘— Personal Electronic Ballots. Thus the curtain rose on the final act of the three-month election drama.

The PEBs held the results for each voting precinct. After the polls close at 7:30, the chief judge plugged the device, which looks like a small eight-track, into each of the ESS Votronic machines to collect the stored information.

‘“Thank you Betty and keep the checks coming,’” said one precinct judge after he handed over his supplies. Judges ferried the PEBs in small red bags; all the other paperwork arrived in a larger blue tote. County workers piled the bags unceremoniously into rolling trash bins and carried the filled cans upstairs.

On Nov. 8 the Guilford County Elections Office collected results from about 130 precincts, down from the 159 that operate during federal election cycles. That’s because county residents who dwell outside of municipalities had nothing on the ballot this year. Only residents of Greensboro, High Point, Jamestown, Summerfield, Sedalia, Gibsonville, Pleasant Garden, Stokesdale, Oak Ridge and Whitsett elected leaders.

The ground floor of the courthouse bustled with activity as election office personnel ricocheted from room to room. In a back room around a large table, Board of Elections Chair James Turner worked on a crossword puzzle. Before the results from Election Day rolled in, he and Secretary TJ Warren and member James Pfaff had canvassed and certified the 1,711 early votes.

Certification of Tuesday’s vote will not happen for another week; on Nov. 8 the appointed members of the elections board simply waited for word of any irregularities. Upstairs, right after the office posted the early voting and absentee results, a breaker kicked and cut power to the projector in the County Commissioners meeting room. Facilities workers earning valuable comp time fixed the problem while the methodical tabulation continued.

‘“Goldie Wells is just wiping out Whitfield,’” Pfaff said as he checked results on the internet.

Beside him in two adjacent cubicles, Deputy Director Charlie Collicutt and Director George Gilbert inserted PEBs into a flat machine tethered with cables to the computers. A program called Unity Election Reporting Manager processed the results, which then printed onto narrow sheets of paper.

Around 9:30 p.m., most of the races had been settled while Gibson waited for word from Davidson and Alamance Counties about overlapping municipal elections. A close race between Dianne Bellamy-Small and Luther Falls in Greensboro’s District 1 exceeded the 1 percent margin for an automatic recount. The woman of the hour ‘— challenger Sandra Anderson, who routed the field of at-large candidates ‘— appeared as staff members printed the final results.

As she beamed, Falls’ supporters discussed whether provisional ballots might narrow his 50-vote deficit.

‘“I don’t know if there were even fifty provisionals cast in that district,’” said Chris McGinn, precinct manager at the Elections Office. ‘“And he would have to dominate those.’”

Employees trickled out of the office as officials wrapped up the results.

‘“No one wants to be the first to leave,’” McGinn said.

As the crowd milled, Falls and his cadre made their unassuming exit from the office filled with campaign staffs of successful candidates impatiently waiting for printouts.

‘“At least they had to fight for it,’” one of his campaign workers said as they walked down the steps. ‘“We didn’t make it easy for them.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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