Frustration at the polls

Published 9:13 pm Wednesday, March 16, 2016

By Jen Jones

Democracy North Carolina

While most North Carolina voters cast their ballots with relative ease, thousands of others faced serious problems because of the state’s election law changes, according to a voting-rights organization that coordinated the largest nonpartisan poll monitoring program in the state’s history on March 15.

Democracy North Carolina, in a partnership with Ignite NC, Common Cause and the NAACP, trained and deployed over 700 volunteers to monitor key precincts in more than 40 counties on Election Day. Clad in yellow t-shirts, the “Vote Protectors” collected exit surveys, compiled reports of voting problems, and connected voters to attorneys and law students at a call center at the University of North Carolina’s School of Law.

On Election Day and during early voting, the hotline received over 1,000 calls from voters seeking information and requesting assistance on a range of issues. A preliminary review shows that the issues included:

• Understaffing and poorly trained election workers,

• Incorrect and inconsistent application of the new voter ID law,

• Failure to provide provisional ballots to eligible voters,

• Last-minute polling place changes,

• Long lines caused by too few intake stations, help desks and voting machine.

“We were encouraged that so many people persisted in making sure their voice was heard, but it was painful to hear about voters harmed by the new voting rules and by the same poor polling-place administration that we documented during the 2014 election cycle, often in the same places,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy NC.

Hall said thousands of citizens had their votes saved by two provisions that a federal court blocked from being repealed — same-day registration during early voting and out-of-precinct voting on Election Day. “All the problems from this primary will be far worse in the general election, when we’ll have more voters, more ID confusion, and the possible loss of those two back-up safety provisions,” said Hall.

“The complaints documented during the primary show the senseless bureaucratic burden of the new ID requirement, as well as the urgent need for greater investment in poll-worker training, equipment and a modernized election system,” Hall said.

The Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which coordinates a national system of hot lines and provided crucial support to the North Carolina operation, provided several stories from the hotline calls in the state: Examples:

• Eligible voter encounters problem with voter ID requirement:

A voter in Wake County only had a temporary driver’s license for today’s election. The poll worker at her polling location said she would have to cast a provisional ballot and it should count according to the state’s “reasonable impediment” law, but because the voter was not confident that her ballot would be counted, she returned home to get her passport which is a valid form of ID. The voter has voted in the same precinct and polling location for the last 20 years.

• Long-time voter not on voter roll at polling place where she has voted for last 30 years:

A woman in Durham County went to her polling place where she has voted for the past 30 years but a poll worker could not find her on the voter rolls. After searching the voter rolls several times and then asking the chief judge for help, the poll worker offered the voter a provisional ballot. The voter did not want to vote provisionally and went to the Board of Elections where she waited in line for another 45 minutes before she was able to cast a regular ballot. Upon contacting Election Protection, a volunteer was also able to verify her voter registration status and noted that she has voted in 62 previous elections.•

• Lines in Wilmington:

Long lines were reported at the VFW polling location in Wilmington where voters were waiting over an hour to vote, many of whom were elderly. An Election Protection volunteer encouraged voters to stay in line, but counted at least 17 people who left without casting a ballot.

Democracy NC is gearing up to increase its poll monitoring and hotline efforts during the November General Election.