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Sara Knotts, elections director for North Carolina's Brunswick County, helped her mother complete her mail-in ballot. But then Anne Ashcraft died three weeks before Election Day, making her vote ineligible under state law.
The Saturday before Election Day, Sara Knotts sat at her desk and began to review paperwork for the ballots she planned to argue were inadmissible.
It’s routine work for Knotts, the director of elections for North Carolina’s Brunswick County, but she’d been putting off the task. Inside the folder, she knew, she’d find the forms and documentation necessary to challenge her own mother’s mail-in vote.
“When I finally opened it and came to my mom’s binder of paperwork, it kind of hit me that that’s probably why I had been procrastinating on getting started—because I didn’t want to feel all the feels,” she said. “It was really emotional. I had a little cry that day.”
Knotts’ mother, Anne Ashcraft, had mailed in her absentee ballot in September, four months after she was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. Ashcraft, 62, died on Oct. 11, two weeks after her vote was accepted by the county board. Under state law, voters in North Carolina must be alive on Election Day for their votes to be counted, even if they legally cast their ballots early.
Knotts, who helped her parents fill out their mail-in ballots, had considered, briefly, the possibility that her mother could die before the election.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I should put Mom’s to the side and wait a bit to see how this plays out.’ But I couldn't do it,” she said. “She wanted to vote, so I wanted her to vote. I actually didn’t realize that she had submitted her ballot until after she passed away. I came back to work after a day off and said, ‘Oh, I should go look,’ and sure enough, her ballot had already been processed by the board.”
The county Board of Elections is notified of deceased voters on a monthly basis, so Ashcraft’s death likely would not have been reported officially until after the election. Quickly, Knotts decided she would need to challenge her mother’s ballot before then.
“There was already so much speculation and doubt going around about how people can’t trust the election system,” she said. “I was not going to let it come up that the Brunswick County director knew about this ‘and she just let it happen.’ It would call into question the integrity of my office. I didn’t want that to even be a possibility.”
She completed the paperwork to remove her mother from the voter rolls and prepared to present the challenge to the Board of Elections at its Nov. 13 meeting. When the board introduced her mother’s case, Knotts couldn’t speak; she handed the presentation over to a coworker and left the room to cry in private. Before the vote, Board Member Randy Pelton asked to speak.
“For the folks in the audience, and perhaps for the press—you might not have recognized the name, but Sara Anne Ashcraft is Sara’s mother. And Sara actually brought this challenge,” he said. “And I think that speaks volumes to her integrity and the integrity of the elections staff here in Brunswick County. Thank you very much for your burden, Sara.”
That afternoon, Knotts posted about the experience on Twitter, saying it was the “hardest thing I’ve done as an elections administrator,” capping the most challenging election of her career so far. In addition to preparing for an unprecedented influx of mail-in ballots and trying to ensure safe in-person voting during the pandemic, Brunswick County election officials fielded phone calls and questions from an uneasy—and in some cases, suspicious—electorate.
“We’d have people call and not understand why people were allowed to request ballots or vote by mail,” she said. “A lot of times, people would call about something they heard on the national news that wasn’t even accurate in North Carolina. We were definitely feeling all of that heat.”
Routine mistakes do happen in elections, Knotts added, but they’re usually fixable errors that don’t affect the outcome. During early voting, for example, a woman came in to cast her ballot and was told that she’d already voted. Officials quickly identified the mistake: a voter with the same name had been checked in on the wrong record.
“That’s something we can fix, but the next thing you know, someone posts about it on Facebook, someone else says to contact the news, and then we’re on the 6 o’clock news,” she said. “The simplest mistake gets blown up to a fault in the system, when really it’s just a mistake by a poll worker.”
In a normal year, Knotts said, she still would have challenged her mother’s ballot. But she may not have gone public with her story.
“But because of all the talk out there about how election administration is crooked—I just take it so personally,” she said. “I felt like if I threw something personal back out there into the world, maybe somebody would read that and go, ‘Oh, maybe they’re not as crooked as this other post claims they are.’”
Feeling the need to justify her own integrity by sharing something so personal hasn’t resulted in resentment or bitterness, Knotts said. The process, while emotional and overwhelming at times, instead offered a kind of closure to her mother’s death.
“It’s letting her death mean something more than just, ‘She got sick and passed away,’” she said. “She also helped shine some light on election administration, and how her daughter’s doing a good job. I think I’m kind of happy it got to play out like it has. It’s kind of comforting.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.