This blog post was co-written with Mary Klenz, co-president of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina.
In the spring of 2015, the League of Women Voters North Carolina (LWVNC) and Democracy North Carolina, a longtime partner in the fight to protect voting rights in North Carolina, worked together to conduct interviews across the state with local board of elections officials. The goal of the North Carolina program (PDF) was to encourage Leagues in North Carolina to develop and strengthen relationships with their local elections officials and get an on-the-ground view of voting administration resources and procedures in order to ensure smooth and efficient voting processes and procedures and better serve voters.
Through this project, we were able to talk face-to-face with 36 of the 100 county board of elections executive directors throughout North Carolina. The interviews focused on election administration topics, such as recruiting and training poll workers, educating voters, budgeting for equipment, and general concerns for the upcoming 2016 elections. In addition, League volunteers sought officials’ opinions on other pro-voter reforms, including online voter registration and ways community groups, like the League and Democracy North Carolina, may be helpful to election officials.
Election workers have come up with creative and proactive ways to engage with new communities when recruiting poll workers by reaching out to community college, high school students and community service organizations like the League. At least one county official hired staff dedicated to educating voters on the new laws concerning photo ID, an effort that will hopefully better prepare voters for Election Day. According to Democracy North Carolina, some county board of elections also plan to have “greeters” at the polls to explain and answer questions related to the myriad of changes to election law passed by the state legislature in 2013.
Through our conversations and survey responses, four major themes emerged around challenges to North Carolina’s upcoming elections:
- With four elections and more than 40 election days possible next year, the usual concern about finding adequate staff has become more pressing. And, the increased use of computers and electronic poll books means more tech-savvy and better trained poll workers are needed.
- In 2013, what has been heralded as the nation’s most restrictive voting law was passed in North Carolina. In part, the law eliminated pre-registration of 16 and 17 year olds, removed out of precinct voting, shortened the early voting period, and imposed a strict voter photo ID requirement. The voter photo ID requirement, one of the more restrictive in the country, and other changes in North Carolina’s voting and elections law are confusing for voters and poll workers alike. There is an urgent need for poll worker training as well as statewide education for voters about the rules and how they will be implemented at the polls.
- Many districts need upgrades to existing voting equipment, more voting machines and associated training. The 2013 election bill also mandated a shift to paper ballots (to be completed by 2018), which will place a further strain on many county budgets where new machines are required to replace outdated technology. North Carolina is not unique in facing this challenge – the Brennan Center for Justice recently released a report highlighting this issue after interviewing elections officials from across the country.
- Earlier this year, a bill was passed to move the presidential primary from May, when statewide primaries are held, to March in order to draw more attention to the state during the crowded 2016 primary season. The separate presidential primary in March is not only costly but presents logistical challenges to counties seeking polling locations, workers and the associated funds.
We will be taking these findings back to our local boards of elections over the next few months, both to those who were able to participate and those who were not. The report highlights the achievements of county elections officials working with limited resources, while at the same time brings attention to the need for pressing reforms ahead of a busy election year in 2016.
One major issue brought up throughout this report is the uncertainty of the changes to our election laws in the face of two lawsuits, currently awaiting decisions in both federal and state court. Elections officials cited the difficulty in sufficiently reaching out to voters about recent changes in the voter photo ID requirement. Initially, the voter ID law was set to go into effect for the 2016 primaries and beyond, requiring all voters to present a limited number of IDs in order to vote. Now for the 2016 primaries, voters who do not have the required photo ID and who meet one of eight criteria, such as lacking transportation or a lost birth certificate, will be allowed to sign an affidavit and vote a provisional ballot. LWVNC and other allied organizations are concerned that procedures put in place to assure the counting of provisional ballots are not robust enough to allow every ballot to be counted under the new law. Both the elections officials and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina will have extensive education programs to ensure that voters are prepared for Election Day, culminating in the voter greeter program by some boards of elections.
Armed with the findings of this report (PDF), and regardless of the impending lawsuits decisions, LWVNC and Democracy North Carolina are preparing to put poll monitoring programs in place for the March 2016 primary to gather data on voting procedures and approach County Commissioners and other elections officials and decision makers in order to find common sense solutions to pressing elections issues that best serve North Carolina voters, with the goal of Making Democracy Work®.
Leagues across the country are encouraged to work with their local elections officials, who have on-the-ground knowledge of the resources available at the county level, to gather data that will help Leagues develop strategies and programs to advance pro-voter election reforms.