Watchdog group says election changes harming voters

With the voter registration deadline for the November elections one month away, voting watchdog group Democracy North Carolina says it's already found hundreds of cases in which last year's changes to state election laws prevented voters from casting ballots.

Posted Updated
Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — With the voter registration deadline for the November elections one month away, a voting watchdog group said Wednesday that it’s already found hundreds of cases in which last year’s changes to state election laws have prevented otherwise qualified voters from casting ballots.

Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, said an analysis of rejected provisional ballots in the May primary found 454 that would have been counted under the same circumstances in 2012.

The information from the State Board of Elections includes those voters’ names, cities, party, race, gender and reason for rejection. Some had included their phone number on the provisional ballot. Hall said he called many last weekend to ask what had happened.

In some cases, early voters had had their registration canceled without their knowledge. Other early voters said they had registered at a Division of Motor Vehicles office or by mail, but the registration wasn’t received in time.

Before the law changed in 2013, they would have been able to cast their ballots using same-day registration at early voting sites. Same-day registration is no longer allowed.

Others were voters who cast provisional ballots in precincts other than their own. In 2012, those were counted as partial ballots if the voter was in his or her home county. Now, out-of-precinct ballots are not allowed in most cases.

Several groups, including the ACLU of North Carolina and the League of Women Voters, are asking the federal courts to put the changes on hold for this year while a lawsuit against them is underway. The case isn’t expected to be heard until 2015.

Last month, a federal judge refused that request. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to hold a Sept. 27 hearing in Charlotte on the motion to stay the changes.

The changes that have already taken effect include ending same-day registration, ending straight-ticket voting, banning out-of-precinct voting, ending pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and cutting the early voting period from 17 days to 10. Voters will also be asked whether they have photo identification, but an ID won’t be required to vote until 2016.

Lawmakers who backed the election law changes say they’re needed to make voting more efficient and prevent voter fraud.

But the groups suing to stop the Republican-penned changes argue they’re intended to make it harder for low-income, minority, student and elderly voters – groups that traditionally vote Democratic – to cast ballots.

Hall said his analysis of the rejected provisional ballots bears that out. While black voters make up just 22 percent of the state’s electorate, they accounted for 39 percent of the rejected ballots. Fifty-seven percent of the ballots were cast by registered Democrats, who make up only 42 percent of North Carolina voters.

“It proves, really, what has been said about the discriminatory nature of the new law,” Hall said, noting that the people affected include a veteran, students and even a precinct judge.

Hall dismissed supporters’ claims of voter fraud problems as a “fantasy,” saying there’s no evidence of widespread in-person voter fraud in North Carolina.

“When they bring up cases of fraud, they’re talking about cases of three and four and five. This is 450 people who were denied the right to vote in one primary election where you have small turnout,” he said, adding that many more voters will likely be affected in the November general election.

Hall and Sarah Preston with the ACLU said voters need to be prepared to avoid being caught off guard.

They’re encouraging voters to check their registration at the State Board of Elections’ website. Changes or updates must be made by Oct. 10.

They’re also encouraging voters to use early voting, where problems can more likely be worked out than on Election Day.

Voters who plan to vote on Election Day, they say, should confirm their assigned voting location for their home precinct. Many have changed since 2012, and ballots cast in the wrong precinct won’t count.

Neither state House nor Senate leaders, both of whom backed the changes, immediately responded to requests for comment.

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