Election offices report smooth primary election
Local election officials say the March 15 primary election ran fairly smoothly despite having to implement the new voter ID law for the first time.
Passed in 2013, the new laws require voters to show proper ID at the polls, but the legislation also eliminated same-day registration, shortened the number of early voting days and cut the pre-registration program for 16- and 17-year olds. While the other provisions are being challenged in court, the voter ID portion of the law was in effect during the primary.
Opponents of the new voter ID laws claim the new requirements were discriminatory to minorities and senior citizens who may have a hard time getting a photo ID or college students who attend school outside the county where they are registered. An additional layer of regulations may have resulted in a few lines at the larger precincts and more provisional ballots needing to be vetted, but election officials say their goal was to follow the new laws — not suppress votes. Haywood County Elections Director Robert Inman said his staff and poll workers would always err on the side of the voter.
“I know most of the 100 elections directors in the state and they know it’s not our place to do anything other than implement the laws as written,” Inman said. “I understand completely how many people feel about these laws, but it’s our job to help voters.”
Jackson County’s local NAACP chapter distributed a letter March 22 claiming the new voting laws associated with House Bill 589 resulted in unprecedented long lines, confusion and “invalidated” ballots during the primary election.
However, Jackson County Election Director Lisa Lovedahl said a little back-up at the Cullowhee precinct is to be expected because of the number of college voters from Western Carolina University. She said she wouldn’t call the lines “unprecedented.”
Lovedahl said higher numbers of college students also results in more provisional ballots, but not because they didn’t have photo ID.
Jackson County had a total of 287 provisional ballots during the primary; 74 of those ended up being fully counted and 24 more ballots were partially counted. Of the 189 rejected ballots, Lovedahl estimated that 40 percent were college students who were registered in other counties.
“The problem with Western is we have a lot of students registered in another county who come to vote in Cullowhee on Election Day and they can’t do that,” she said. “So there’s nothing we can do but give them a provisional ballot.”
Lovedahl said college students could avoid that problem by casting their ballot during early voting because they can still change their registration during that time. She said about 1,000 college students took advantage of registering this year before the primary deadline.
While Jackson County NAACP is concerned about the new laws’ implications for students, minorities, senior citizens and people living in poverty, the chapter is especially concerned about 14 ballots rejected by the local board of elections due to insufficient voter ID.
“These ballots would most likely have been counted in the state primary had H.B. 589 not come into effect,” said Dr. Enrique Gómez, president of the Jackson County branch of the NAACP, in a press release. “If this aspect of the law is not overturned by the courts, the NAACP is concerned that the number of rejected ballots will be high at the November general election, adding to the uncertainty and confusion about the outcome of these elections in addition to violating people’s voting rights under the U.S. Constitution.”
The North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP filed a lawsuit to challenge the HB 589 provisions under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution immediately after the bill became law, but a ruling is still pending from the U.S. Federal District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.
The ban on counting out-of-precinct ballots and the elimination of same-day registration are not currently in effect due to a ruling from the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals last year, but poll workers were making sure a voter’s face matched their photo ID before they cast a ballot.
Inman said he had not received a similar letter from the Haywood County chapter of the NAACP and was pleased with how the election process went during the primary. Even with another layer of checks and balances and more poll workers to handle the new requirements, he didn’t experience any unexpected delays or problems.
“Were there lines? Of course there were — there are lines in every election — but our lines were minimal given the turnout,” Inman said. Haywood County had a 40 percent voter turnout in the primary.
Inman said provisional ballots could be rejected for a number of reasons besides the voter ID issue. He said poll workers are responsible for researching provisional ballots and the board of elections makes the decision whether to count it or reject it if it doesn’t meet the requirements.
He said Haywood County had about 104 provisional ballots and less than half of them were approved and counted.
“Provisional ballots are a fail-safe — they’re not a burden to make things more difficult — they’re for the safety of the voters so it gives us time to research them,” Inman said. “We had more provisions this year than ever and that tells me poll workers were going to the lengths required of them.”
While voters are still getting familiarized with the new voter ID laws, Inman said the elections office fielded more questions over the deadline for registering to vote than it did about providing proper photo ID.
Joan Weeks, election director for Swain County, said the new voter ID law didn’t cause any problems during the primary. Swain County had only 28 provisional ballots, and 15 were counted.
“Only one of those ballots not counted was because they didn’t have voter ID,” she said. “The rest were people actually from Jackson County that came to the Birdtown precinct to vote.”
Weeks said her staff informed them they were at the wrong precinct — and the wrong county — but the rules let anyone vote provisionally so that’s what poll workers let them do.
With each county having additional poll workers at the precincts to greet people at the door and tell them to have their ID ready, Macon County Elections Director Debbie George said very few people were turned away because they didn’t have ID. Macon County had 96 provisional ballots and 45 were counted while another 23 were partially approved. Only nine of those provisional ballots were because voters didn’t have an ID.
“The others that went unreported were because they moved out of precinct, were at the wrong precinct or we had no record of their registration,” George said. “But if they feel like they registered, they fill out a provisional and we can have time to search for it.”
Prep begins for June 7 election
Without much time to regroup, local election agencies have already started to prepare for the June 7 congressional primary. The congressional races were moved from the March 15 primary to their own June 7 primary because of several federal lawsuits making their way through the courts challenging North Carolina’s district mapping.
An additional election means additional costs for counties throughout the state. Inman said he is still crunching the numbers, but between paying poll workers, testing machines and printing ballots, Haywood County could spend $60,000 on the June 7 primary.
Weeks said the June 7 primary was already causing confusion because the congressional races did appear on the March 15 ballot. Many people did vote in those elections, but the March 15 results were not calculated. Even if people voted for those offices March 15, they need to return to their precinct on June 7 or during early voting for that vote to count.
“It’s a completely new election. It’s a waste of money but at the end of the day, we’re ordered to do it and we’re going to do it,” she said.
Lovedahl said the June 7 primary would probably cost about $50,000 — the average cost of any election in Jackson County. Even if only one race appears on the ballot, the same number of ballots has to be printed and the same number of precinct workers will be needed for early voting. In addition to the congressional primary, Jackson County will also have a sales tax referendum on the ballot.
Early voting for the June 7 election begins Monday, May 23.