North Carolina’s Worst-Performing Precincts Reveal a Flawed Voter Registration Process

North Carolina’s Worst-Performing Precincts Reveal a Flawed Voter Registration Process

by May 8, 2020

UPDATE: Prompted by this report, NC state Rep. Graig Meyer and 16 other legislators petitioned the State Board of Elections to change the state’s voter registration form as called for here. That change was implemented in October 2019.

Provisional Ballots: the Canary in the Coal Mine

Provisional voting is meant to be our election system’s failsafe mechanism. But a recent EQV analysis of provisional voting in North Carolina’s 2018 election demonstrates it can serve as something much more important, as well: the canary in the coal mine, warning of systemic problems with our voting systems – problems that disenfranchise substantial numbers of would-be voters every election year.

Any North Carolina voter encountering a problem at the polls on election day is entitled to cast a provisional ballot. But whether or not that ballot is counted is up to the discretion of the county board of elections. As Robert Joyce at Coates’ Canons explains:

An individual who believes that her name should be on the voter rolls, but is not, or who for some other reason appears ineligible, can vote provisionally. On the spot, the voter fills out an application for a provisional ballot, marks the ballot, and seals it in a special envelope. In the days between the closing of the polls and the announcement of the official vote totals, county elections officials review the application and determine whether in fact the voter was eligible.”

Just under 36,000 North Carolinians cast provisional ballots in 2018 – about 1% of all voters in that election. Almost half of those provisional ballots (49%) were never counted – most of those (84%) because election workers could find “no record of registration” for those would-be voters.

It might be tempting to dismiss such “no record of registration” provisional voters as merely the inevitable fraction of people who just don’t pay attention to the rules (and thus attempt to vote without registering first). Yet State Board of Elections data belie that simplistic assumption. Among the nearly 19,000 voters forced to cast provisional ballots due to “no record of registration” in 2018, nearly a quarter (21%) ultimately saw their ballots counted – indicating that investigators judged the error in those cases to be the Board of Elections’ fault, not the voter’s. Mistakes happen (as here, in nearly a quarter of ‘unregistered’ voters’ cases), but we’ll never know how many additional board of elections errors go undiscovered every year – disenfranchising voters through no fault of their own.

Pin the Tail on the Precinct

To illustrate how provisional balloting data can warn us of systemic problems with North Carolina’s voter registration system, we mapped every NC county’s uncounted provisional ballots in 2018, by county precinct (and expressed that number as a percentage of all ballots cast in that precinct). We then performed a deep dive into the state’s worst-performing precincts (those with uncounted ballots totaling more than ten times the statewide fraction of 0.5%), asking what, if anything, those under-performing precincts all had in common. The answer to that question should trouble every friend of voting rights.

Meet North Carolina’s worst-performing precincts for 2018:

ROBESON COUNTY PRECINCT 22 tops our list (see Figure 1), where 1 of every 10 ballots cast in 2018 went uncounted. Precinct 22 is home to both the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) Pembroke campus and to much of its student body (60% of whose members are people of color).

FORSYTH COUNTY PRECINCT 405 (Figure 2) saw 8% of its voters’ ballots left uncounted in 2018, making it the 2nd-worst in North Carolina. Precinct 405 is home to Winston-Salem State University, one of the state’s leading HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).

NEW HANOVER COUNTY PRECINCT W24 (Figure 3) tied for second-worst, also left 8% of its voters’ ballots uncounted. It’s home to UNC Wilmington.

GUILFORD COUNTY PRECINCTS G68 & G45 (Figure 4). Precinct G68 (in a three-way tie for second place with 8% of its ballots uncounted) is home to North Carolina A&T State University, the nation’s largest HBCU, while UNC Greensboro calls precinct G45 home (7% uncounted).

PITT COUNTY PRECINCT 1507B (Figure 5). Precinct 1507B is immediately adjacent to the East Carolina University campus. ECU’s student body is only slightly more diverse than the state as a whole, at about 30% people of color. With its 6% of ballots left uncounted in 2018, precinct 1507B is tied for 4th place among the state’s worst-performing precincts, alongside…

DURHAM COUNTY PRECINCT 55-49 (Figure 6). Home to the renowned HBCU, North Carolina Central University (NCCU), this precinct completes our list of the state’s worst, leaving 6% of its voters’ ballots uncounted in 2018.

Away Games

This list is far from exhaustive, but illustrates our finding that the state’s worst-performing precincts are all home to large populations of younger people, many living away from home.

That includes more than just college students. If we continued the list outlined above, next up would be Cumberland County’s precinct G11B, with 5% of its ballots uncounted in 2018. That precinct lies just outside one of America’s largest military installations, Fort Bragg, home of the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps, the United States Army Special Operations Command, and the U.S. Army Reserve Command. As such, this precinct resembles all the others listed here, housing large numbers of younger and mostly transient voters living away from home on election day.

But all these precincts share an even more informative characteristic, as well: many of their young transient voters don’t receive mail at their residential addresses. Among college students this mostly includes freshmen living in on-campus dorms, whose university-assigned mailing addresses typically differ from their dorms’ street addresses. Among military personnel it includes those receiving mail at military PO Box numbers or APO addresses, which will differ from their housing units’ street addresses.

That’s important because, according to state law, anyone registering to vote in North Carolina whose mailing address differs from her street address must supply both addresses on her voter registration form. Her street address determines which precinct she votes in (technically speaking, you vote in the precinct where you sleep), while providing her mailing address enables her to receive the State Board of Elections postcard that serves as a test to insure her address is valid. If that postcard is returned to the Board of Elections marked ‘Undeliverable’ it triggers a process that will soon see the voter’s registration application rejected, often with no notice to her.

That’s why candidates and campaigns typically blanket social media in the days heading up to election day with pleas for their supporters to check to make sure they’re registered to vote. But human nature being what it is, all too often those pleas fall on deaf ears.

That’s how a precinct makes our rogues list of under-performers: by rejecting large numbers of voter registration forms from folks who don’t understand that, along with their street address, they must also provide their correct mailing address. Come election day those eager young participants in our democracy are confident they’ve registered to vote. But they’ll quickly learn, to their deep regret, that registering to vote and being registered to vote are two very different things – and the former does not assure the latter.

We Can Fix This

But what’s to be done? A cynic with a heart of stone might merely shrug and say “Hey, you can’t fix stupid. The voter registration form says you have to list both addresses. If a kid’s too dumb to do it, that’s his problem.”

Or even the most caring county board of elections staffer might point out, more or less correctly, that if the board doesn’t have the applicant’s mailing address then it has no way to reach him or her to attempt to correct the deficient application.

But neither of those answers is constructive. Here’s one that is.

With our data analysis having clearly defined the problem, even the most cursory glance at North Carolina’s voter registration form should immediately suggest its solution.

Click to view full size
This form fails miserably at addressing what most every board of elections staffer knows to be the long-standing problem in North Carolina of people who forget to include their mailing address if it differs from their residential address. But even worse: the form actually contributes to those applicants’ confusion, telling them that “fields in red text are required,” yet failing to print the required mailing address field in red text. It would cost taxpayers literally nothing for the State Board of Elections to fix this formatting error, and maybe add a bit of additional text, in bold, emphasizing that this is really, really important. It might even save taxpayer dollars, by dramatically cutting the number of defective voter registration applications – and provisional ballots – that board of elections staffers process every year.

C’mon y’all; this ain’t rocket surgery. Let’s help everyone vote.

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