Raleigh, N.C. — At least 40,000 voters across North Carolina cast provisional ballots during the primary because there was some sort of administrative issue when they came to the polls.
In Wake County, so many voters – nearly 8,000 – cast provisional ballots that the Board of Elections has delayed its official canvass day – the day a county’s results for most elections become official – from Tuesday until Thursday morning.
Fourteen other counties also delayed the completion of their official canvass as local elections officials sift through provisional ballots trying to determine which will fully count, which will partially count and which won’t be counted at all.
The higher number of provisional ballots is most likely a reflection of increased voter turnout and interest in the March 15 primary, driven mainly by interest in the Republican and Democratic presidential contests.
“I’ve never had a presidential candidate show up at a polling place on Election Day,” said Gary Sims, elections director for Wake County. Democrat Hillary Clinton campaigned at Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School as voters went to the polls. Her rival, Bernie Sanders, along with Republicans Ted Cruz and Donald Trump held rallies in the state in the week leading up to the election.
A provisional ballot is one that is linked to a specific voter so it can be traced and examined at a later time. Voters are given provisional ballots when there is some sort of administrative problem with their ballots.
For example, more than a quarter of those who cast provisional ballots are those for whom there was no record of registration.
Another reason voters received provisional ballots was they voted at the wrong precinct on primary day. Those ballots will count for statewide and countywide races but not for legislative seats or county commissioner if it was cast in the wrong district.
Voters who had problems with the new voter ID rules were also given provisional ballots. Despite this being the first election with voter ID in place, election officials say those issues did not trigger the bulk of provisional voting. Only about 2,400 voters across the state – or about 6 percent of the provisional ballots – had ID problems. As a percentage of 2.3 million voters who cast a ballot in the primary, the number with voter ID issues was tiny: 0.1 percent.
According to Sims and state elections officials, one of the biggest and more surprising causes of provisional voting were members of one party trying to vote in the other party’s primary.
“I’ve never seen so many people just wanting to vote in a different party,” Sims said.
In Wake County, 17 percent of those who cast provisional ballots were trying to vote in the wrong party. That’s up from roughly 9 percent in a typical year.
Anecdotally, voters trying to cast ballots for and against Trump may have caused many of the failed cross-party votes. The Trump campaign, for example, was encouraging Democrats to cross party lines. But North Carolina law doesn’t allow registered Democrats to vote in the Republican primary.
Because state officials are still working through provisional ballots, it’s unclear whether the final numbers will bear out this speculation.