The prohibition on counting out-of-precinct provisional ballots hasn't received nearly the publicity as other provisions in the law signed by Gov. Pat McCrory. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
RALEIGH, N.C. -
For a decade, registered
North Carolina voters who didn't go to their home precincts on Election
Day - by error or on purpose - could still ensure their top choices
They'd fill out a conditional ballot from the
incorrect precinct. If officials confirmed soon after that they were
legally able to vote in the county, their votes for elections not
specific to their home precinct would be tabulated.
Republicans at the legislature say people should be responsible to know
where they're supposed to vote, rather than force election workers to
crosscheck their ballots and figure out their lawful choices. So they
inserted in their elections overhaul bill passed last month a new law
barring those out-of-precinct ballots- usually thousands combined
annually in primary and general elections - from being counted at all.
you do cast you ballot, you should know which precinct you belong in,"
said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, who shepherded the election law
through the Senate, calling the change a "small part of the overall
streamlining of the election process."
The prohibition on counting
out-of-precinct provisional ballots in the law signed last week by Gov.
Pat McCrory hasn't gotten nearly the publicity as provisions requiring
photo identification, reducing the number of early-voting days and
ending same-day registration during the early-voting period.
civil rights and voters groups and their allies find the exclusion
onerous enough to cite prominently in lawsuits challenging the law they
filed immediately after McCrory signed it. People who vote in the
incorrect precincts will have their ballots thrown out, even if they are
qualified to vote, and their choices for president, governor and
Congress won't count.
Critics of the new law say the prohibition
is one of many obstacles to voting in the new law by Republican
legislators that will harm black voters. The State Board of Elections
says 7,486 provisional ballots were cast on Election Day last November
by voters identified as having gone to the incorrect precinct, and
almost 90 percent were counted fully or partially.
"It just sends
the message that your ballot is not valued," said Bob Hall, executive
director of the election reform group Democracy North Carolina. "'We're
not here to try to listen to your voice' - that's what this government
The lawsuits say black voters cast about 30 percent of
all out-of-precinct ballots in 2012 while comprising 22 percent of the
state population. Black voters "disproportionately live in low-income
neighborhoods without access to transportation or flexible work
schedules that might allow them to get to their home precincts," one of
the lawsuits says.
The new law still provides citizens 10 days of
early voting - down from the current 17 - at county election center
where voters are sure to receive their correct ballot. Rucho said the
process of election officials wading through out-of-precinct ballots can
delay the final outcome of races.
Election workers research the
voter's address and what ballot the person would have received had the
voter gone to the correct precinct. That ballot is then matched up
against the ballot the voter cast in the wrong precinct, and the voter's
choices in the races that match up are then counted.
elections director Cherie Poucher, while not commenting on the new law,
said evaluating out-of-precinct ballots is "a very tedious, cumbersome
The fight over out-of-precinct provisional ballots dates
back years. It contributed to delaying the final outcome of the 2004
race for state school superintendent of public instruction.
June Atkinson led Republican Bill Fletcher by about 8,500 voters after
the November 2004 election. But Fletcher and his lawyer questioned
whether state law allowed for at least 11,000 ballots cast in the wrong
precincts on Election Day to count toward their totals.
Supreme Court ruled in February 2005 in favor of Fletcher, saying state
laws "unambiguously require voters to cast their ballots in the
precincts of residence." The justices pointed out that election
officials were supposed to direct people in the wrong precinct to the
The ruling infuriated Democrats, who controlled
the legislature then. They said laws passed as early as 2001 directed
people who went to the wrong district to receive a provisional ballot
and to have their choices count for all the races in which they were
eligible to vote.
Democrats quickly passed laws effectively
overturning the court's decision and derailing litigation by Fletcher to
attempt to persuade the courts to declare him the winter. The General
Assembly declared Atkinson the winner in a vote along partisan lines
Michael Crowell, who represented Fletcher during the
2005 election litigation, said out-of-precinct balloting on Election Day
had been a get-out-the-vote effort by some statewide or presidential
campaigns. Even if a voter wasn't in the right precinct, campaigns for
top-tier races knew the votes would ultimately count.
Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, who led the Democrats' effort to untangle the
superintendent's race in 2005, argues allowing out-of-precinct ballots
to count is more important than ever. Changing boundary lines and split
precincts in the latest round of redistricting - also being challenged
in court - increases potential confusion, he said.
"The risk of voters showing up in the wrong precinct is greater than as it was then," Clodfelter said.