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Study outlines problems, improvements needed for elections

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This file photo from Oct. 20, 2016, shows eople lining up for early voting at Chavis Community Center in Raleigh. A recently released report from Democracy North Carolina says the state elections board can take step to reduce wait time and improve the process for voters. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)


By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, January 7, 2018

More training for poll workers and better equipment are two improvements an advocacy group said will ensure voters can cast their ballot with confidence in this year’s primary and general elections.

Democracy North Carolina, a voter advocacy group, identified these recommendations and others in its report “From the Voter’s View: Lessons from the 2016 Election,” which was released Tuesday.

The 27-page report was based on first-person accounts gathered during the 2016 early voting period and on Election Day 2016. The information came from voters, on-site poll monitors, and calls to an election protection hotline.

“While the challenges highlighted in our report do not reflect all voters’ experiences, it’s helpful to look at the system from the lens of the voter who had a troubling experience at the polls in order to learn, adjust, and continuously improve the voting process,” said Isela Gutierrez, director of research and policy for the group and author of the report. “The coming 2018 election is a chance to apply those lessons from previous cycles.”

The study stemmed from “Election Protection,” an effort to help voters experiencing difficulties on election day. It was led nationally by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and a coalition of Democracy N.C., the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the North Carolina State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Forward Justice, Ignite NC, Common Cause, the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute, the UNC School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights and other community partners.

Voters made more than 3,800 calls to the Election Protection hotline during 2016 presidential election. The effort also took 415 incident reports and conducted 600 polling place checklists and 26,500 exit surveys.

There were 1,100 lay poll monitors stationed at 300 precincts in 64 of the North Carolina’s 100 counties. In Pitt County, 10 volunteers, working in teams of two, observed at the precincts located in Winterville fire station, Koinonia Christian Center, Holly Hill Original Free Will Baptist Church, Eppes Recreation Center and East Carolina University’s Willis Building.

There also were 250 monitors with legal training circulating at 420 precincts in 33 counties and 235 lay poll monitors stationed at 63 early voting locations in 21 counties.

The monitors and hotline reports reveal repeated reports of voters struggling with:

■ Inconsistent implementation of out-of-precinct voting, which allows people to cast a provisional ballot if they go to the wrong precinct or if their address wasn’t properly recorded.

■ Inconsistent use of curbside voting, an alternative voting option for voters with disabilities.

■ Excessively-long lines, particularly during the first and last days of early voting.

■ Voting equipment breakdowns.

■ Poorly trained or discourteous poll workers.

“We actually didn’t receive many calls from Pitt county, in total, in 2016,” Gutierrez said. “We received about 63 calls and most of them were about registration, where to vote, what the voting rules are ... what about if I have a felony conviction, what about my absentee ballot, those were the bulk of the calls we received.”

However, one call involving an early voting site in Pitt County was included in the report.

An individual called on Oct. 21, 2016, and reported a Latina who appeared to speak limited English was ignored when she asked a poll worker a question. The woman reporting the incident said the poll worker talked to colleagues until the Latina voter left without voting.

Three days later another person reported witnessing a would-be voter asking if a Spanish interpreter was available. The poll worker said no and offered no further guidance. After the person left, the poll worker said aloud “When I was in school we didn’t have any Spanish people around,” according to the reporting party.

It’s unclear if this incident involved the same poll worker or the same Latina voter.

When contacted, the Pitt County Board of Election staff said they would call the site and said “it sounded like a little sensitivity needs to be there.”

“It was dramatic. It was one of the more shocking examples of what seems to be blatant bias that we had heard about,” Gutierrez said.

Most calls involve communication challenges or poll workers who may not understanding the rules.

“It’s a really long day poll workers are working, and I know they get frustrated and tired too. I’m not saying they can’t be human, but they are playing a really important role, so it’s critical that we pay attention to what they are doing and hold them accountable when needed,” Gutierrez said.

“We always urge poll workers to act professionally and treat voters with sensitivity while conducting their duties,” Pitt County Board of Elections Director Dave Davis said.

“Whether it is a ‘regular’ voter, assisting a voter with disabilities, or communicating with a voter who may be limited in speaking English, our duty is to help every voter through the process of casting their ballot while maintaining their dignity and respect,” he said.

Poll worker training in voter assistance wil be expanded to include language barriers and improvement in proper etiquette toward voters needing assistance, he said.

“As the Hispanic/Latino community grows in North Carolina, the need has increased for training poll workers to address language issues,” Davis said. “We will be contacting other counties and the State Board of Elections for tips on how to improve our training in this area.”

Another frequent complaint statewide was the inconsistent application of rules governing out-of-precinct voting, Gutierrez said.

Out-of-precinct voting allows voters who show up at a precinct other than their assigned precinct in their home county to cast a provisional ballot. Gutierrez likened it to a “safety net,” allowing the voter’s vote to be counted in the races they are qualified to vote in, such as president or governor, but perhaps not in a school board election because of the precinct differences.

Ideally, a poll worker should explain that a voter is in the incorrect precinct and either offer them a provisional ballot or recommend going to their correct precinct along with giving them the location’s address.

According to the report, there were incidents of poll workers failing to offer a provisional ballots, sending voters to multiple and often incorrect precincts, discouraging voters from voting out-of-precinct and telling voters that their provisional ballots would not count.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement needs to provide county election boards with more support and resources, Gutierrez said. But first, a State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has to be in place.

In December 2016, shortly after Democrat Roy Cooper was declared the winner of the governor’s race, the Republican-led General Assembly changed the appointment process and required the elections board membership be divided between Democrats and Republicans instead of being dominated by members of the governor’s political party.

Cooper sued, and the case is before the state Supreme Court. The state hasn’t had a state board since July. Only the state board can certify election equipment vendors, meaning counties can’t purchase new equipment.  

Without new equipment, breakdowns will likely increase, leading to situations such as what happened in Durham County. There, problems with the electronic poll book software forced a countywide shift to paper poll books. The result was long lines and supply shortages. Voting hours in the county had to be extended. 

Most issues documented in the report can be addressed through improved training, Gutierrez said. Among the top recommendations:

■ Improved consistency in poll worker use of the existing protocol for out-of-precinct voting.

■ Review training materials on curbside voting, and work with county officials to improve curbside voting signage, wait times and implementation.

■ The state board should request legislative funding to assist with upgrading voting equipment and other elections costs. Currently counties cover election costs.

■ A “code of conduct” should be developed for poll workers. It should stress the importance of courtesy, respect, and sensitivity toward all voters regardless of age, race, language, gender, and ability; clear communication; efficiency and convenience; basic knowledge of state election law and administrative guidance; and commitment to ensuring that all eligible voters are able to cast ballots.

■ Increase and expand state and county efforts to recruit younger, more diverse, culturally-competent, and tech-savvy poll workers.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570. Follow her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.