’We take this job seriously’: Elections director who had to challenge her own mother’s ballot hopes voters see workers as dedicated public servants

Brunswick County elections director had to address personal challenge

BOLIVIA, N.C. (WECT) - Sara Knotts says she is proud of her team at the Brunswick County Board of Elections as they work to put the final touches on the 2020 cycle — an election year that presented unparalleled challenges.

Knotts and her staff worked long hours making sure every valid vote counted, sorting through tens of thousands of absentee-by-mail and early voting ballots.

But they also had to make sure votes by ineligible voters weren’t included in the final tallies.

"Anyone that votes early is still judged by their qualifications on election day,” Knotts said, explaining that if someone votes early, but dies before Election Day, their vote is no longer acceptable, and her office sometimes has to present ballots to the board to be rejected.

This year, that meant asking the board to reject her own mother’s vote.

“When my mom cast her ballot, she was already on hospice care. So we knew that she was probably, or maybe, not going to be with us on Election Day, but she wanted to vote,” Knotts said. “After she passed away, I knew that I was going to need to challenge it, to remove it, because I just think it’s important that the process be fair and transparent.”

Pride in the work

Knotts, says she believes her mother, Anne Ashcraft, was proud of the work she is doing to ensure free and fair elections, no matter the cost, and would have applauded her for doing the right thing, as painful as it was.

Ashcraft was diagnosed earlier this year with glioblastoma, one of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer, and Knotts says her family knew their time with her was short, but that didn’t stop her mother from making the most of that time.

“She maintained an attitude of, ‘It’s okay. It is what it is, I’m going to live my best life while I can. I am not going to be defeated by this, I’m going to, you know, spend as much time with my family as I can.’”

Knotts said she did what she could to make the most of that time too — even as the 2020 election cycle presented even more work than a typical presidential year.

“I think [that was] so important just to remember, even in the midst of being so busy here,” she said, “because I knew that she was not going to be with us forever.”

She said it also underscores her frustration with the rhetoric surrounding elections officials, poll workers and the other public servants who have worked for months to make sure every voter’s voice is heard.

“It’s very frustrating. It’s hurtful,” she said.

Painful Rhetoric

From comments from politicians to social media posts from those within her own circle, Knotts said the two weeks since Nov. 3 have been hard to stomach for her and her staff.

“We take all of these steps to make sure that the results we certify are accurate," she said, "And then just to have people that don’t really understand the process say things about the work that we do when they don’t really understand what goes on behind the scenes. It’s hard to take sometimes.”

She said this year in particular has been challenging for North Carolina elections workers — guidance from the state regarding absentee by mail ballots has changed, sometimes daily.

And all the time, she was watching her mother’s condition worsen before she died.

When you add in the personal toll, the outside comments sting even more.

“If people understood how many hours we spent here, and how little time we got to spend with our children, with our spouses, with our families, and then just to have people not think that we did a good job or that we aren’t trustworthy: It’s like a punch in the face. It’s hard to hear.”

Knotts said she hopes sharing her experience will show skeptics that those tasked with administering elections aren’t “rigging” the process or looking to obstruct the will of voters.

“I wanted people to know that we take this job seriously,” she said. “We live and breathe elections for the month leading up to an election, especially a presidential elections.”

“When they spread misinformation, or they retweet or share a post on Facebook, that’s not entirely accurate. It really undermines all the work we put into, you know, making sure the public trust the process.”

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