Sara Knotts stared at the envelope that had contained the ballot her mother placed in the mail. Knotts knew she would have to challenge her vote.

Knotts, the top election official in Brunswick County, North Carolina, was reviewing information about ballots that she planned to argue should not legally count. Officials challenge ballots for various reasons: Maybe it’s one of the few attempts at double voting; or maybe someone with a felony conviction cast a ballot.

In this instance, Knotts’ mother, 62-year-old Anne Ashcraft, had died.

Ashcraft had mailed her absentee ballot in September and died from a brain tumor on October 11. North Carolina law requires a person to be alive on Election Day for their vote to count, even if they had cast the ballot during early voting. The rules on whether to count such ballots vary by state.

When Knotts finally opened a folder full of paperwork on ballots that she would need to challenge before her county’s elections board, she found herself studying her mother’s handwriting on the envelope.

“Seeing her signature on the envelope, seeing my dad’s signature that he had to help her … seeing her signature and how much it had changed from what it used to look like. It was very shaky,” she recalled. “The gravity of how sick she was, it kind of washed over me.”

Knotts, 40, has been in elections administration for more than a decade. She knew she would need to challenge her mother’s ballot. She prepared the necessary paperwork and got ready to present the information to election officials on Friday, during a formal hearing to review votes.

But Knotts was overcome with emotion when it came time to present her findings. She cried in a back room, and a colleague ultimately spoke on her behalf. An election official at the meeting praised Knotts’ work.

“Sara actually brought this challenge,” the board member said before a unanimous vote to reject the ballot. “And I think that speaks volumes to her integrity and the integrity of the elections staff here in Brunswick County.”

Knotts later posted about the experience on social media, calling it the “hardest thing I’ve done as an elections administrator.” She told The 19th she felt frustrated about the false attacks against people who had helped run America’s decentralized elections this year. Politicians and regular citizens alike had for days questioned the processing and counting of votes, but Knotts wanted the public to understand how seriously she and other elections administrators took their jobs.

“We are people. We have integrity. We have been living and breathing the elections for months at this point,” she said. “And to say things like that an elections administrator or an office might be cheating or allowing votes to count that shouldn’t, or any of that kind of stuff, I just couldn’t sit back and let that be the case.”

Knotts is the director of the Brunswick County Board of Elections, an office that oversees elections for a little over 100,000 registered voters in southeast North Carolina. Like election officials around the country, she worked long hours to make sure people could vote before and on Election Day.

Her staff of five, which increased to about 20 in the lead-up to the election, mailed a record number of absentee ballots that they would later process. They also ordered election equipment, and recruited and trained poll workers.

“Me and my staff have been working so hard, and so many hours to make sure that we were doing our jobs with integrity and making sure that we were following all the rules and crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s,” Knotts said. 

The typical local election official (LEO) is most likely a White woman between the ages of 50 and 64 making about $50,000 annually, according to survey data in a 2019 report.

Karen Brinson Bell is the executive director of the North Carolina Board of Elections. It is the top elections position in the state, comparable to the work of secretaries of state elsewhere. Bell noted that until a few decades ago, running elections was not a full-time job in government. Although the job of elections administration has evolved in recent years to include more technology skills for enhanced security measures, it historically involved a lot of paperwork and filing to process voter registrations.

“Because of that clerical nature, I think that’s probably the historical context of how women came to be in these roles,” she said.

Women have been central to making things tick this election cycle: They have served as poll workers. Women secretaries of state have been front and center in battleground states where President Donald Trump has falsely claimed widespread election fraud.

Knotts said the social media misinformation and disinformation surrounding the vote counting process has made this the “most challenging” election of her career. Trump, who is projected to lose to President-elect Joe Biden, has filed multiple lawsuits challenging the election outcome (several have been dismissed). Trump has also repeatedly posted lies about election fraud, prompting his supporters to question the results.

“People just make assumptions based on what they see on social media, or what their neighbors are talking about or wherever they’re getting their information, and then they start spreading it. It’s hard, and I take it personally and I try not to,” she said. “But this time it was very difficult.”

The criticism mounted during the counting process, according to Knotts. In one instance, a person posted a photo of an election official that Knotts works with, who was on their phone outside a ballot counting facility. The person falsely accused the official of conspiring with Democrats. Knotts personally called the person who posted the photo to challenge the post. The person later apologized and took down the photo.

And the disinformation wasn’t the only factor that made this election difficult. 

“There were definitely a few days where I felt very defeated,” Knotts said. “Not that I would leave, but questioning how much more of this I could take. This election personally was very difficult, not really having a chance to grieve my mother and have time off to spend with my family and then to just be hit left and right with this. There’s only so much a person can take before you kind of like throw your hands up.”

Knotts’ mom, Ashcraft, was diagnosed with glioblastoma shortly after Mother’s Day. As she prepared for the upcoming election, Knotts was helping her mother as she transitioned into hospice care.

By the time Knotts requested absentee ballots for her parents, her mother had lost mobility. Ashcraft wasn’t “super political,” but she had instilled in her daughter a sense of purpose around voting.

“I wanted to be sure she could vote because she has always voted,” Knotts said. “I remember going to vote with her when I was a child. I remember the first time I got to vote, when I turned 18, I went with her. It was just something that she always did.”

Throughout the summer and fall, Ashcraft maintained a positive attitude even as she became bed-bound and could no longer care for herself. She generally seemed upbeat, even during moments of frustration. She was in hospice care when she filled out her absentee ballot.

“I don’t know where she mustered the strength to do it,” Knotts said. “…Her attitude around her illness helped me, and I’m sure probably the rest of my family, cope.”

Knotts said her mother “was born to be a grandmother.” She was close to Knotts’ 6-year-old daughter, who started kindergarten this year. She was also a grandmother to Knotts’ two stepchildren, one of whom died in February in a car crash at the age of 18. 

Knotts said her stepson’s death happened about a month before the state’s primary. She went to work, a form of grieving that she repeated months later with her mother. 

“This year has been personally very difficult for me,” she said. “I don’t know how I’ve just been able to push it down and still get through work.”

She plans to take time off soon as the office finalized provisional ballots and does administrative work like pack up equipment. But for now, there is still work to be done.

Brinson Bell called Knotts a model elections administrator.

“There probably is no example that we will ever have that just demonstrates the degree to which an election professional holds this profession, while trying to balance the demands of this career and the personal demands that are there,” she said.