News: CJ Exclusives

Officials: Voter ID Law Did Not Cause Primary Confusion

State Board of Elections cites record early voting and heavy overall turnout

CJ photo by Kari Travis
CJ photo by Kari Travis

State Board of Elections officials say 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.

The law, requiring voters to present a state-authorized photo identification document at the polls, went into effect for the first time in Tuesday’s primary elections. Critics 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.

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 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.

Complete data, including how many provisional ballots were issued and for what reasons, should be available by Tuesday after precincts complete their tabulation, Lawson said. The process takes longer in some areas because information is recorded on paper and still is being documented.

Lawson said there is no objective way to compare North Carolina’s new voter ID requirement to the behavior in other states that have made a similar change. State requirements differ, so it would be difficult to establish a uniform measurement, he said.

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 elections board stated 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 said.