An analysis of data from the State Board of Elections reveals that more than 29,000 voters were able to participate in the March 2016 primary by using safety-net provisions in North Carolina’s election law that the General Assembly majority has tried to eliminate.
In Wake County, for example, 1,859 were saved by the provisions (45% Democrats, 19% Republicans and 36% Unaffiliated). In Catawba County, 358 could vote (22% Democrats, 36% Republicans and 42% Unaffiliated). In Nash County, 192 were saved. In Guilford, it was 975; Forsyth 702, Durham 1,867 and Cumberland 831.
The key provisions are (1) same-day registration and voting during early voting and (2) out-of-precinct voting on Election Day. Both were targeted for repeal in the overhaul of election laws passed by the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013. However, an injunction by the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has blocked their repeal until a federal judge rules on a legal challenge to the overhaul 2013 law, HB589. A decision in the case could come at any time; meanwhile, thousands of voters are using the two provisions to have their ballots count.
By using same-day registration, 22,800 voters registered as new voters in their county during the early voting period and successfully cast ballots in the 2016 primary. Many of them thought they had registered when they updated their driver’s license address at the Division of Motor Vehicles, but that process is neither automatic nor error free, said Bob Hall, executive director of the voting rights and campaign reform organization, Democracy North Carolina.
“We’ve documented hundreds of cases of DMV failing to transfer registrations to county boards of elections,” Hall said. “Same-day registration is a valuable safety net that rescues voters from human error and deficiencies at DMV and other agencies. It will harm citizens of all ages, races and parties if same-day registration is eliminated, but it will especially hurt lower income and younger voters who tend to move from place to place.” He noted that 55% of the same-day users were under age 30.
By using out-of-precinct voting, 6,300 voters had their ballots count fully or in part for the primary. They were properly registered but because of time constraints, incorrect information or another reason, they went to the wrong poll in their county on Election Day, March 15. They cast provisional ballots which were then reviewed by election workers. The bond issue, national and state contests, and local races on the ballot of the voter’s home precinct were all counted.
“Because Election Day is a Tuesday, some people need to vote near where they work or take their kids to school,” said Hall.
The number of out-of-precinct voters varies widely, from 1,351 in Wake County to 178 in Buncombe County to 3 in Caswell County.
The State Board of Elections continues to review how counties are treating provisional ballots. For example, Democracy North Carolina is asking officials to count over 100 provisional ballots in Forsyth County that lacked a voter’s signature because the form and precinct workers did not ask for a signature. (Read more about this story.)
“We’re glad the State Board of Elections is working with counties to ensure that all voters have their voices heard and that the rules are consistently applied across the state,” said Hall.
Hall noted that the preliminary data that show 29,000 voters used the two provisions also reveal that 1,320 ballots were rejected because voters did not provide proper ID to poll officials. That number could change as the State Board continues its review of county reports.
“In addition to the ballots rejected, we don’t really know how many voters stayed away because of the confusing ID requirements,” Hall noted, “but we do know how many were saved by same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting.”
“So much attention has been given to the impact of the voter ID law, but the loss of the two safety-net provisions will likely have a bigger impact on more individual voters and on the outcome of North Carolina elections,” Hall said.