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Posts tagged as “State Board of Elections”

Cast, but not always counted: What are provisional ballots?

By Michaela Towfighi and Kalley Huang

When one of Gunther Peck’s students told him that she had cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 election, he immediately worried. 

“I was like, ‘uh oh,’ and then I checked it out afterwards,” said the Duke history professor and voting rights activist. His search confirmed his fears. “She voted, and she had no voting history.”

Her provisional ballot was never accepted.  

Like Peck’s student, 1,084 Durhamites cast ballots that did not count in 2016, according to the Durham County Board of Elections. Some may still be under the impression that they participated in the election four years ago. 

“The worst thing is, a lot of people don’t even realize their vote didn’t count,” Peck said. “The pernicious part of it is that you’d have to check your voter history after the fact to see that your vote didn’t count.”

Provisional ballots are cast when a poll worker is unable to verify a voter’s eligibility when they check in at a polling place. It’s like an entrance to a party where it’s unclear whether or not you are on the guest list. Except in this case, the party is an election and getting in doesn’t mean your vote counts. Provisional ballots are held aside until county election officials investigate to determine whether or not the people who cast them are eligible to vote. 

Provisionals are more likely to be cast on Election Day, according to Patrick Gannon, a North Carolina State Board of Elections spokesperson. In the early in-person voting period, voters are able to register and cast a ballot on the same day. This process is called one-stop voting.  

However, on Election Day, if a voter is not registered with their name in the county poll book, a directory that tracks registered voters, they are presented with a provisional ballot. 

At the North Carolina Central University polling site, only 26 of the 91 provisional ballots cast in 2016 were counted in whole or in part — overall, less than 30%. 

Statewide, over 90% of provisional ballots cast in 2016 were counted in whole or in part.

“It’s absurd,” Peck said. “People waited hours to cast those provisional ballots. The wait time in 2016 was four and a half hours because everybody was casting provisional ballots. The line was melting.”

He attributed the “horrific” throw rate to a “perfect storm” — a partisan fight over counting students’ provisionals, lower voter enthusiasm leading to last-minute decisions to vote, poll workers not informing voters to vote at their assigned precinct, and students being confused about how to register and where to vote. 

N.C. Central has an early vote site that also serves as an Election Day precinct. All students can vote early there, but only on-campus residents may vote there on Election Day — a complex distinction that may have driven up the rate at which provisional ballots were cast and thrown out.

Reasons for Provisional Voting 

The North Carolina State Board of Elections gives a provisional ballot when a voter has no record of registration. Voters may also receive a provisional ballot if they do not have an acceptable form of ID, don’t have a recognized address, are at the incorrect voting precinct, or have already voted according to records. 

If a voter’s registration is removed from the county poll book, they are also presented with a provisional ballot. A voter’s registration can be canceled if they moved within the state, were convicted of a felony or were accidentally removed when lists were updated, among other reasons. 

Additionally, if the voting hours for a precinct are extended by the state board on Election Day, then all voters who cast a ballot during the extended hours must vote provisionally. This happened at eight Durham precincts in 2016, after technological issues delayed the voting process. 

Provisional ballots disproportionately affect younger and poorer voters, Peck said, because they are more likely to move in between elections. 

“If your parents have lived at the same address for 40 years, they’re never going to be asked to vote provisionally, because they’re fixed,” he said.

Although the throwing problem is particularly acute at N.C. Central, it is not isolated to the university. Young voters in general are more likely to cast provisional ballots, which exposes their vote to risk of rejection.

“Most people have never even heard of provisional ballots, so they don’t know the hazard or the danger in casting one,” Peck said.

Reviewing Provisional Ballots

When a voter casts their provisional votes, their ballot is separated from others and marked for later review. This review process happens after the election, when the county board meets to accept or reject all provisional ballots cast.  

In the review process, the board does research to validate unknown addresses, verify voters’ identities and find any indication that voters have attempted to register prior to Election Day. As officials search through the records of registration locations, such as the DMV, processing errors that prevented voters from entering the poll book could be unveiled, according to Gannon. Those unsaved by a mistake-proving document are less lucky. 

“If it’s obvious that the person did not make any attempt to register, and then cast a provisional on Election Day, that ballot would not be counted,” he said. 

In 2016, the Durham County Board of Elections approved 518 provisional ballots after their research confirmed that the voters were registered and eligible. 

In some cases though, provisional ballots are partially counted. This happens when a voter’s registration is eligible, but they voted outside of their designated precinct. In those cases, the voter’s ballot is counted for the races they are eligible to participate in, which may only include national and statewide races.  

“If the voter lives in Congressional district 13 and voted in Congressional district 4, the vote for Congress would not count,” the Durham County Board of Elections explained in its provisional ballot press release for the 2016 election 

During the 2016 election, 324 provisional ballots were partially accepted in Durham County. In total, just over half of the provisional ballots cast in Durham were either completely or partially counted.

Peck is more optimistic about this year’s provisional ballots. The state elections board has made an active effort to make sure as many ballots as possible are counted, he said. At N.C. Central, he added, administrators and students have encouraged the campus community to vote early, when voters have time to fix issues that may arise with their registration.

“It’s a combination of administrative problems, lack of knowledge, and also a system where you don’t know until after the fact, which is not deliberate voter suppression, but it is suppressing votes,” Peck said.

A wad of towels and a spray bottle to keep voters safe

Wearing a plastic face shield, a blue surgical mask, blue gloves and a white surgical gown that reaches down to her pink running shoes, Maria Quiros looks like many of the health workers battling the coronavirus in hospitals across the country. 

But this is no hospital. It’s the early voting site at Duke’s Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center. And Quiros’s job isn’t to heal the sick — it’s to protect thousands of voters from the virus.

Her outfit is a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic has transformed voting, usually no more risky than visiting the county library, into an activity that is potentially life-threatening.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

“It makes everything feel very surreal,” said Emma DeRose, a Duke senior and volunteer poll worker who helped wipe down the voting stations with disinfectant. “Obviously, we know a pandemic is going on. But I think Duke is kind of in a bubble in a way. We’ve had a pretty low case count, and it doesn’t really feel that present. And then I think you get to the polling center, and you’re seeing these people, including myself, just all decked out, and it’s like ‘woah.’”

Voting, like going to the grocery store or to school, has become a stroll through a minefield. And, since early voting started in North Carolina on Oct. 15, Quiros, DeRose and others have kept voters safe with a wad of paper towels and a spray bottle of disinfectant. 

According to an Aug. 14 memo from the North Carolina State Board of Elections, workers at voting sites are required to perform “ongoing and routine environmental cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas” with an EPA-approved disinfectant for COVID-19.

On a recent Friday, Quiros stood at the left side of the voting room in Karsh. She had her dark hair in a bun, and her eyes scanned the booths. As soon as a voter left a booth, Quiros scurried over and began cleaning. 

She started by wiping the bottom of the polling booth. Next, she cleaned one side, and then the other, finishing with a horizontal swipe along the front edge.  

While waiting, Quiros also directed voters to empty booths or helped them follow the blue arrows to the spot where they could scan their ballots — she’s both the cleanup crew and stage director. 

It’s tedious work, but Quiros is staying positive. She’s confident that the polling place is safe for voters.

“Because we are taking care of them,” she said.

Quiros said she has been working 12 hours a day since Oct. 15. She has help. There are 10 to 15 poll workers during each shift, and these workers rotate between various positions, from ballot tabulator to sanitation worker, said DeRose, who was greeting people and handing out pens. 

“I think just us being very thorough with the cleaning provides a sense of comfort,” DeRose said. 

This Friday afternoon, Quiros was accompanied by Kate Young, 72, who had started her cleaning duty at 1:30 p.m. 

“You get used to it,” she said, referring to the protective gear she was wearing. “This is what we have to do now.” 

She has volunteered as a poll worker for four years, and she said this voting site is far better run than the one at the Devil’s Den in 2016. 

“It was a madhouse,” she said, chuckling. 

Uncertainty looms over this election, but Young isn’t worried. She prefers to focus on helping in small ways, a lesson she has learned from her years with the Peace Corps, End Hunger in Durham, and other activist work.

“You do what you can,” she said.

At top: Poll volunteer Emma DeRose wipes down a voting booth after a voter leaves. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street journal

One month before Election Day, poll worker needs are largely filled

Damon Circosta may be able to sleep better now. The chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections said a month ago that his biggest worry in the middle of the night was whether counties would be able to recruit enough poll workers. But it appears most counties have met or are on track to fill their needs, according to a spreadsheet posted on the state elections website.  

Elections officials were concerned because many people in the prime demographic group for poll workers – 65-70 year-old retirees – are expected to stay at home this year because of risks from the coronavirus. 

But state and local recruiting efforts for “Democracy Heroes” seem to have worked.

 “There’s been no one in any county really contacting us saying they’re in dire trouble,” said Noah Grant, the elections communication specialist for the board of elections. 

 Among the counties with full staffing: Durham – so much that the county is now rejecting poll worker applications. 

“We have had overwhelming interest from the community and expect all voting sites to be fully staffed,” the Durham County Board of Elections wrote in an email to interested applicants on Sep. 29. 

It takes between 25,000 to 30,000 workers across the state to run the election, according to Grant. To meet this need, officials began recruitment in May and June, with an increased push in July. Facebook helped North Carolina and other states through targeted ads and News Feed messages with links to the poll worker application. 

Grant said he didn’t know the demographics of registered poll workers in each county but that many previous volunteers are still helping again this year. 

“A lot of the people that are poll workers are very dedicated to the process of serving and have done it for years, he said. “This wasn’t going to stop them.” 

He said there will be safety precautions at all at polling locations. Poll workers will have personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves, and locations will be frequently sanitized. There also will be dividers to minimize contact with voters.

When The 9th Street Journal asked about details in the spreadsheet on Friday, Grant said it was last updated on Sep. 21 and was outdated and incomplete due to a lack of response from county board of election departments. But many counties, including Wake are marked on it as fully covered. 

The effort also got a boost from the North Carolina Office of State Human Resources, which is offering employees three days of community service leave to work in the election. 

Although most needs are met, the state is continuing to target counties to build a reserve of volunteers through Facebook advertisements and OSHR emails. These counties include: Anson, Ashe, Avery, Beaufort, Caswell, Chowan, Cumberland, Dare, Duplin, Graham, Hoke, Johnston, Lenoir, Montgomery, Northampton, Rutherford, Stanly, Wilkes and Watauga. 

Yet one month to election day, Grant’s biggest fear is one that is out of his control: an outbreak of the virus.

It’s not a fear that we’re not going to have enough workers because of an outbreak,” he said. “We just don’t want to see anybody get hurt on the job or go through this because you’re volunteering in the election.”

North Carolina voters can fix most deficient ballots, unless judge intervenes

Editor’s Note: A federal judge on Saturday blocked changes to North Carolina’s absentee voting process, placing a temporary restraining order on the Sept. 22 State Board of Elections settlement that allowed voters to cure ballots with missing witness information by signing an affidavit. The announcement affects the following story in that instead of mailing cure certifications to voters whose ballots had missing witness information, county boards of elections will now hold those ballots while courts determine the next step. We’ll update this story with future developments. 

As much as 40% of the state electorate will vote by mail this year. But don’t screw up if you want your vote counted. 

Historically, three in ten absentee ballots have been thrown out because they do not meet necessary guidelines, said Gunther Peck, Duke history professor and voting rights activist. Now, more voters who make mistakes on their ballots will get a second chance to make it count. 

A joint motion filed last Tuesday in Wake County Superior Court revised the statewide ballot curing process so voters can simply sign an affidavit to fix the most common mistake in absentee ballots — incomplete witness information. Previous guidelines required voters to cast a new ballot. 

In North Carolina, a witness must certify that a specific voter completed the ballot by providing their name, birthday, address and signature on it. The North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans filed a lawsuit on Aug. 10 demanding various changes to the absentee voting process, including suspending the witness requirement for single-adult households. The organization and the North Carolina State Board of Elections agreed in the Sept. 22 settlement that the witness requirement will remain, but ballots without complete witness information can be cured through a cure certification, or affidavit.

When a voter slips up, the county board sends them a cure certification form. The form explains that the voter missed information in their ballot and asks that they provide a signature to remedy the deficiency. 

State guidelines require that county boards physically mail and email the cure certification to the voter, who should only return one form. If the county board does not have the voter’s email address on file, election officials are obligated to give the voter a call. 

The following deficiencies qualify for a cure certification, according to the state board of elections

  • Voter did not sign Voter Certification
  • Voter signed in the wrong place
  • Witness or assistant signed in the wrong place
  • Witness or assistant did not print address
  • Witness or assistant did not sign
  • Witness or assistant signed on the wrong line
Voters will use cure certification forms, like this sample form from Durham County, to address deficiencies in their absentee ballots, now including deficiencies in witness information.

The certification can be returned to the county board by mail, fax, email, or commercial carrier. Voters can also drop off the form in person at their county board’s office, an option that should be taken into consideration given U.S. Postal Service delays and the number of days until Nov. 3.

Mailed certifications and ballots that arrive in the county board office after Nov. 3 should be postmarked by Election Day. Certifications will only be counted if they are received by Nov. 12.

In the case of less common mistakes, such as ballots arriving in open envelopes, county boards would issue the voter a new ballot. 

WRAL reported that federal judge William Osteen warned that the changes the state board made to witness requirements for absentee ballots do not have his approval. Rumblings from the Republican-appointed judge against simplifying the absentee voting process have yet to turn into action, and county board offices are still mailing and emailing voters cure certifications. 

As of Sept. 29, hundreds of ballots across the Triangle are deficient. 

In Durham County, 387 of the 16,150 returned absentee ballots are currently deficient, said Derek Bowens, director of the Durham County Board of Elections.

In Orange County, 103 of the 9,784 returned ballots are currently deficient. Since Sept. 4, 27 ballots have been cured, said Rachel Raper, director of the Orange County Board of Elections. 

Raper said that incomplete witness information accounts for nearly 90% of ballot deficiencies in Orange County. 

In Wake County, 386 of the 35,175 returned ballots are currently deficient, said Gary Sims, director of the Wake County Board of Elections. 

Disparity in deficiency

Ballot deficiencies disparately affect Black voters, whose ballots were twice as likely to be rejected than those submitted by the state’s white voters in 2018. So far in 2020, the absentee ballot rejection rate of Black voters is nearly three times as high as that of white voters, according to a joint analysis of state board of elections absentee ballot data by ProPublica and WRAL News. 

Irving Joyner, voting rights advocate and professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Law, told ProPublica and WRAL News that unfamiliarity and lack of voter education may be a root of the disparity. Many Black voters are casting their ballots for the first time, the analysis said. 

Black voters in Durham County account for 17% of returned absentee ballots, but 44% of ballots that are pending cure. Meanwhile, the county’s white voters make up 67% of returned ballots and 37% of deficient ballots, Bowens wrote. 

In Orange County, inequality lies in both the number of deficient ballots and the mail-in voter turnout. White voters represent nearly 72% of returned ballots, while Black voters make up less than 6%. Even though white voters account for substantially more returned ballots, the percentages of deficient ballots are starkly close — 61% from white voters and 24% from Black voters, Raper wrote. 

Wake county does track not race-related information among absentee voters, Sims said.

Republicans need senior voters, but Trump is pushing them away

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has good reason to worry about senior voters in North Carolina. 

McCarthy told Axios that he spent hours telling President Trump his unfounded attacks on mail-in voting could not only doom the president’s re-election, but also imperil Republicans running for Congress. 

The House Minority Leader said that he’s particularly concerned about losing the senior vote, which historically leans right. “I tried to show [Trump] … you know who is most afraid of COVID? Seniors. And if they’re not going to go vote, period, we’re screwed,” McCarthy said. 

A new 9th Street Journal tally of absentee ballot requests from the North Carolina Board of Elections shows why McCarthy is so concerned. Democratic voters older than 65 have requested nearly twice as many ballots (13,319) as their Republican counterparts (7,007), according to the data available on Sept. 14. 

The numbers also show that Republicans account for 36% of the state’s voters who are older than 65, but only 23% of the absentee ballot requests for that age group. Meanwhile, Democrats represent 40% of the state’s senior voters and 44% of voters older than 65 who have requested ballots. 

Unaffiliated senior voters, who account for 24% of all senior voters, have requested 32% of the ballots.

As McCarthy feared, Trump’s repeated attacks on mail-in voting seem to be having an impact — particularly with Republicans. A WRAL poll last week found a third of likely North Carolina voters have little to no confidence that votes cast by mail will be counted correctly. The sentiment varied by party: While 42% of Republicans and and 39% of Independents said that they had little to no confidence in the mail-in voting process, only 28% of Democrats felt the same way. 

Republicans usually depend on senior voters, who voted 55% to 42% for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

People over the age of 65 make up 23% of the statewide electorate. In the 2016 and 2018 elections, they had the highest voter turnout compared with other age groups. 

But COVID-19 has re-written the expectations for 2020: Adults ages 65 years old and above are the most vulnerable to the virus, representing eight out of every 10 coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. People in this age group may decide it’s in their best interest to stay home and mail in their ballots. But Trump’s repeated attacks on absentee balloting might discourage his older supporters from voting at all. 

Republicans can still overcome the disparity in mail-in balloting by getting people to vote in person. Early voting starts Oct. 15 and Election Day is Nov. 3. 

Terri Benforado, a 57-year-old Durham resident who plans to vote for Trump, said that she and her husband, who is over 65 years of age and also supports Trump, will vote early in person. 

Benforado said that she has always casted her ballot at an early voting site, and this year will be no different. She also volunteers as a poll worker on Election Day. She’s not concerned about potential health risks due to the coronavirus, which she said are exaggerated by Democrats and the left-leaning media. 

“I think there’s a risk, but there’s not a risk to my husband and I,” Benforado said.

Staff writer Rose Wong can be reached at rosanna.wong@duke.edu

Assistance with data analysis was provided by Joel Luther of the Duke Reporters’ Lab; graphic by Henry Haggart of The 9th Street Journal

What the state elections chair worries about in the middle of the night

Overseeing a statewide election in a pandemic gives Damon Circosta plenty of things to fret about. But when the chair of the North Carolina Board of Elections lies awake at night, his biggest worry is the poll workers.

The state needs to accommodate over 7 million registered voters so they can cast their ballots for president, U.S. Congress, governor, and other statewide offices on Nov. 3. That takes about 25,000 workers. But finding them may be difficult this year, since poll workers are typically senior citizens who now face the risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

The state needs more poll workers than usual, too. In addition to their normal tasks of greeting voters and handing out ballots, they will be expected to enforce social distancing, wipe down ballot stands, and distribute masks and hand sanitizer.

Damon Circosta | State Board of Elections

Circosta, who was appointed to the board a year ago, describes himself as a “true zealot” of accessible elections. Ensuring that counties can staff their polls in November has become his top priority — and his greatest concern.

“Recruiting those people has always been a challenge,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do now.”

Fortunately, state elections officials “didn’t put all our eggs in one basket,” he said. Voters can choose to vote absentee by mail, head to the polls for early voting from Oct. 15-31, or cast their ballot on Election Day at one of 2,700 precincts. 

The state board of elections has helped recruit workers for all three methods of voting with its “Democracy Heroes” campaign — they’ve collected about 17,000 interest forms that way, said Circosta. But most of the burden of recruiting poll workers lies with the counties.

Durham is on track for a smooth election, said Director of Elections Derek Bowen. The county has already secured about 600 of the 800 volunteers it needs by Election Day, with over 100 applications pending. Plus, Durham has a program that will send government workers to staff the polls if necessary.

Circosta is optimistic that the rest of North Carolina will round up enough poll workers, too — “but we cannot let off the gas,” he said. He recommends that businesses let employees take a day off and college students be released from classes to work at the polls.

He isn’t concerned about health risks for workers. “Going to your polling place will be safer than going to your local Walgreens,” he said. But he knows some residents might be scared to vote in person.

“I’m worried that talking about the challenges COVID-19 creates will inadvertently tell people that (voting in person) isn’t what they should be doing,” he said. “Absolutely, we can make it safe. I just want people to show up.”

Others predict a high turnout despite the pandemic. Page Gardner, founder of the Voter Participation Center, said the advocacy group has seen “an enormous response” from voters, especially to its vote-by-mail application.

“There is a hunger to participate,” she said. “People want to help, and they want to vote.”

President Trump has stirred up questions about the election with false allegations about the prevalence of voter fraud, most recently targeting the validity of mail-in voting. Gardner said the president is “doing everything he can to keep people from voting.” He has even claimed there are plans to send law enforcement to monitor the polls, which critics say could be a form of voter intimidation.

But Circosta said state and federal law prohibit the mobilization of law enforcement for poll monitoring. “It’s not going to happen,” he said.

Yet the suggestion may put voters on edge. Durham routinely sends unarmed security officials to monitor polling sites to “help diffuse any situations that may arise,” said Bowen. The protocol was created to protect voters, but he recognizes that the presence of uniformed guards could make some voters feel threatened.

“We don’t want to have any form of voter intimidation,” he said. “So that’s a hard balance.”

Chatham County had an incident of voter intimidation in February, when pro-Confederate demonstrators reportedly hurled slurs and flew Trump and Confederate flags in front of an early voting site. Gardner said it’s up to election officials to prevent similar incidents this year.

“There are people trying to confuse, intimidate, and make the voting process seem chaotic,” she said. Election officials “need to guarantee that this will not be allowed.”

Circosta said he has “no tolerance” for citizens who harass fellow voters, but he anticipates counties will need additional guidance in responding to voter intimidation.

“If people do wish to engage in that behavior, I expect the full weight of the law will be used to thwart it,” he said. 

Circosta’s job comes with plenty of anxiety. But he said being the face of the North Carolina election feels “absolutely wonderful.”

He doesn’t know when or how the election will end, but he urges voters to be patient.

“By every account, this is going to be a close election,” he said. “But we’ll get it right.”