State News

Elections chief defends N.C. voting systems

Posted October 9, 2008 3:11 p.m. EDT
Updated October 9, 2008 7:06 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina's elections chief lashed out at a report Thursday that suggested the state had misused a Social Security Administration database to purge voters from the state's registration rolls.

Gary Bartlett, the director of the State Board of Elections, said it was "simply untrue" that some qualified voters in North Carolina could be disenfranchised.

A front-page story in The New York Times questioned why North Carolina and several other states had run so many checks of voter registrations through a Social Security Administration system used to validate a registrant's identity. The Social Security Administration has said North Carolina has run some 400,000 queries.

Officials in Colorado and Michigan also questioned the validity of the story. The New York Times did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Callers began inundating the state elections office, frightened that they would be kept from casting their vote. Those calls were on top of the thousands of calls the office has been receiving daily about how to register to vote.

"We're getting calls from concerned voters because they're looking at the headlines, and the headlines are just wrong," Bartlett said.

The state's Friday voter registration deadline will mark an end to a historic registration period that saw a heated Democratic primary drive a surge in voting registration, which continued unabated as Election Day has approached.

Democrats have added 290,808 new registrants since Jan. 1, while 128,162 new registrations have signed up with the Republicans.

Bartlett said North Carolina officials check the validity of both a driver's license and a Social Security number if the registrant provides both, which he believes is allowed under federal law. He said the board plans to streamline the process after this year's election so that the state won't run a Social Security check if the driver's license alone validates the registrant's identity.

While North Carolina has been dropping about 2,000 people a month during these checks, he said the purges are legitimate.

"You cannot say with 100 percent absolute certainty that there has not been some error somewhere. However, we have a record that we can research that and correct that if it's wrong," he said.

Many of the state's more than 600,000 new registrations may have come from people with out-of-state driver's licenses, so the people listed their Social Security number to confirm their identity, Bartlett said. Others may have simply chosen to provide their Social Security number instead of their driver's license number on registration paperwork, he said.

Bartlett added the lack of a Social Security number match does not lead officials to remove voters from the rolls. He said voters in question can confirm their identity on Election Day or, as a last resort, vote with a provisional ballot and confirm their identity later.

"The problem with these stories is they undermine the public's confidence in North Carolina's elections," Bartlett said in a statement.

Bob Hall, who heads the advocacy group Democracy North Carolina, defended the elections board and called the Times story "reprehensible."

"Editors and election watchdogs ... need to understand and examine the voter registration process in North Carolina before they question its validity and make claims about its deficiencies," Hall said.

Hall said he's found that many voter registration forms are incomplete or partly illegible, and many prospective voters provide a Social Security number instead of driver's license number. Therefore, he said it's not surprising the state would need to run so many verifications through the Social Security Administration database.

Hall said he's worried the story might incite fear when there's nothing to worry about.

"What we don't need are inflammatory stories about stolen elections or cheated voters that have no basis in fact," Hall said.

Bartlett said the only thing he fears is long lines on Election Day. He encouraged voters to take advantage of early voting at one-stop sites, which runs Oct. 16 to Nov. 1.

Thousands of new registrations have poured into the Wake County elections office each day since the start of the month, director Cherie Poucher said. Her staff moved into a new room to handle all the paperwork, sorting piles of envelopes and buckets of mail seven days a week.

Hundreds of phone calls also come in each day from voters wondering if they are registered, Poucher said.

"Democracy's a wonderful thing, and the more people that participate in it, the happier we are" she said. "It's a lot of extra work, but to see the interest – to see people getting ready to exercise their right to vote – is a good feeling."