Smooth Sailing

Published 10:39 am Monday, March 21, 2016

It appears that the new Voter ID law did not present any major problems at the polling precincts throughout the Roanoke-Chowan area during Tuesday’s Primary Election.

However, there were some issues with voters not understanding how a Primary election works.

“Our biggest problem here had nothing to do with the new (Voter ID) law, but rather we saw several instances of where a voter was registered as a member of one political party but asked for a ballot of another political party,” said Susie Squire, Elections Director in Northampton County.

A Primary election is used by all major political parties (Democrat, Republican and Libertarian) to determine a winner from their respective list of candidates on the ballot. The winners from each political party in the Primary advance to meet each other in November’s General Election. It’s during a General Election where voters are allowed to cross party lines and cast a ballot for the candidate(s) of their choice, no matter the political party affiliation.

In a Primary, the only exception to the rule is if a voter is registered unaffiliated; that type of registration allows the voter to choose one ballot from among the three major political parties.

“We had the same problem here with voters being confused about party affiliation,” said Hertford County Elections Director Shelia Privott. “They didn’t realize they were limited to a single ballot; perhaps they confused the Primary with the General Election. We had instances where a voter registered to one particular party questioned why the local (county) races were not listed on their ballot. They would then ask for a ballot with the local races, but that request had to be denied due to the way they had registered to vote.”

Board of Commissioner races were on the Democratic ballots in Northampton and Hertford, but not in Bertie or Gates. Those county races led to higher turnouts in Northampton, where 41.11% of its 14,601 registered voters cast ballots, and Hertford (36.19% of 14,729 voters). Both those counties were above the statewide turnout (35.35%).

In Bertie, voter turnout was 27.94% of its 14,052 citizens listed on the polls. Gates County’s turnout was 24.29% of its 8,256 registered voters.

Additionally, interest was high in Northampton for a race between six candidates vying for four seats on the county’s Board of Education. That race was included on all ballots (Democrat, Republican and Libertarian) as school board candidates are considered non-partisan (not pledging their loyalty to any political party).

All Northampton ballots also contained a non-partisan referendum asking voters to decide on a Supplemental School Tax (an issue that was resoundingly defeated by nearly a 9-to-1 margin).

All Roanoke-Chowan area voters, no matter party affiliation, also had the opportunity to cast a non-partisan ballot on the ConnectNC Bond referendum, which passed by a wide margin.

As for North Carolina voters required for the first time in history having to show a proper form of identification to cast a ballot, all of the local Board of Elections directors said that was not a major issue to deal with.

“We only had a few to show up at the polls without an ID,” noted Squire. “They were allowed to vote by a provisional ballot. In order for that ballot to count, they are required to come to the Elections Office in Jackson by 12 noon on Monday (March 21) and present a proper and acceptable form of identification.”

Privott said there were isolated cases in her county where voters arrived at the polls without personal identification.

“I strongly believe that all the media attention to the new Voter ID law as well as state officials getting the message out to the voters by way of literature that was mailed out far in advance of the Primary helped to educate voters across the state of this new requirement,” Privott stated.

Meanwhile, Bertie Elections Director Shelia Holloman and her counterpart in Gates County, Clytia Gordon, both said things went well in their respective counties during the Primary.

“We had no major problems here; things went very smoothly in my opinion,” Holloman said. “We were prepared to handle the new regulations thanks to the training we received from our State Board of Elections. We did have a few provisional ballots cast, but I’m unaware at this time if they were or were not related to the new Voter ID law.”

Gordon noted there were a few hiccups early during election day, but they were due to having a handful of new poll workers serving the public at the voting precincts.

“It was their first time working any election, and this was a unique one with the implementation of the new Voter ID rules,” Gordon remarked. “We got off to a rough start, but we were able to iron things out fairly quickly and the rest of the day went very well.

“When there were cases of someone not having an ID or presenting an unacceptable ID, those individuals were made aware of that fact by one of our precinct workers, and they were allowed to vote by provisional ballot,” Gordon added. “All of those have since come by my office and presented the proper identification, meaning their provisional ballots are accepted and will be added to our totals.”

Gordon did say there were at least 50 individuals in Gates County wanting to cross over party lines to vote.

At the statewide level, organizations such as Democracy North Carolina and the ACLU of North Carolina cited a call center staffed by law students at the University of North Carolina’s School of Law receiving more than 1,000 calls on Tuesday dealing with voting issues, according to a story filed by the NC News Service.

Complaints include understaffing, poorly trained election workers, incorrect application of the new voter ID law, failure to provide provisional ballots to voters and last-minute polling place changes.

However, a story penned by Dan Way, Associate Editor of the Carolina Journal, said just the opposite. His story cited State Board of Elections officials saying charges that North Carolina’s new voter ID requirement led to long wait times at the polls and unnecessary confusion that harmed voters are off target.

Critics of that new law have condemned the requirement as a misguided policy that would lead to voter suppression, and railed against changes in early voting times as designs to diminish minority and Democratic votes, Way wrote in his story,

State officials rebut those contentions with Tuesday’s turnout results and early voting numbers.

“More voters participated in Tuesday’s election than in any prior primary. Early voting was also a huge success, surpassing 2008 and 2012,” said Josh Lawson, the state elections board’s general counsel.

A total of 2.3 million voters cast primary ballots, which was 35.3 percent of registered voters.

“With more than 2,700 precincts across the state, data we have so far indicates our efforts surrounding voter ID were successful,” Lawson said, while acknowledging that there were some issues requiring issuance of provisional ballots.

“Current data also indicates that two-thirds of those who voted provisional ballots did so for reasons unrelated to photo ID,” Lawson said. That included a number of voters attempting to vote for candidates in several parties, and casting ballots in a party primary for which they were not registered, he said.

While some voters did have to wait longer than usual at some sites, Lawson said he could not determine whether that was caused by many people flooding the polls at specific times or shortly before the voting places closed.

The Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, issued a news release Wednesday acknowledging that early turnout surpassed recent records, but saying voters had fewer days to cast a ballot because a 2013 election reform law reduced the early voting period from 17 days to 10.

A March 2 press release from the state elections board that a record number of early voting sites would be available, and the election law encouraged local election boards to have those sites open longer hours.

The organization blamed congested polling sites that caused some voters in Wake County, Durham, and Winston-Salem to wait hours in line Tuesday on the shortened voting period.

“We are seeing in North Carolina the exact type of electoral chaos that happens when politicians manipulate the voting system for their own gain,” said the Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP. “The right to vote should be constitutional, not confusing.”

The Advancement Project represents the NC NAACP and individual plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn the election reforms. That lawsuit, pending in federal court, challenges other elements of the law in addition to the voter ID provision. Those include eliminating same-day registration, banning the counting of ballots cast out of precinct, and cutting a program allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to register before they are eligible to vote.

“The confusion faced by voters attempting to cast a ballot — in large part due to misinformation from poll workers — is exactly why we call this a monster voter suppression law: It affects each step of the voting process, making it harder and more confusing along the way,” said Penda Hair of the Advancement Project.

Bob Hall, executive director of the progressive organization Democracy NC, also criticized the new law, citing information collected by 700 volunteers in key precincts in 40 counties.

He issued a news release claiming that poll workers at sites across the state seemed to lack training, were overworked, and enforced the voter ID law in a disparate manner. Some voters were refused a provisional ballot when problems surfaced, he said, predicting worse issues in the general election.

“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.

Lawson pushed back against those claims.

“For three years, the State Board has educated and assisted voters to prepare the state for voter ID. That effort was funded at about $1 million a year, and included mailings to every household, poll worker training, television ads, and targeted assistance to voters,” Lawson said.

“While we are carefully reviewing ways to shorten wait times, we are proud of the work counties did to ensure voters’ voices were heard at the polls, and will continue seeking ways to improve the process during the June 7 congressional primary election and the Nov. 8 general election,” Lawson concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

email author More by Cal