Durham County

Voting hours extended at 8 precincts in Durham after computer glitch

After technological glitches that halted voting at some spots in Durham, the State Board of Elections extended poll hours at eight precincts — but short of the time requested by the local board.

The county board of elections had asked for an additional 90 minutes at the eight precincts — Bethesda Ruritan Club, Creekside Elementary, Forest Hills Club House, Greater Emmanuel Temple of Grace, Neal Middle School, McMannen United Methodist Church, Glenn Elementary School and Cole Mill Road Church of Christ.

At a nearly hourlong meeting that started at 6 p.m., the state board denied that request, but extended voting for one hour at Bethesda and Cole Mill Road Church precincts. The board also extended voting by 45 minutes at Creekside and Glenn School, 30 minutes at Forest Hills and Greater Emmanuel, 25 minutes at McMannen and 20 minutes at Neal Middle.

Under state law, the State Board of Elections can lengthen polling time if the voting process is halted for more than 15 minutes — and “may extend the closing time by an equal number of minutes.”

Meanwhile, an emergency hearing was held late Tuesday, in which Wake County Superior Court Judge Don Stephens denied a motion to extend voting until 9 p.m. at all Durham precincts. The hearing was scheduled after the Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of Democracy North Carolina to keep Durham polls open.

Stephens said that as long as the state board did what it needed to do with the eight problem-laden precincts, no voter in Durham who wanted to vote would’ve been stopped from voting. That’s why he didn’t extend it countywide. But he didn’t let it go without throwing some criticism Durham’s way.

“Durham, historically, hasn’t figured out how to carry out an election,” Stephens said.

The Rev. William J. Barber II, head of the state NAACP, objected to the State Board’s action, saying the extension was inadequate and calling it “immoral and unconstitutional and un-American.” He also pointed out that the board’s extension came at the very end of the voting day, after the problems had cropped up much earlier Tuesday.

The last-minute scramble came after software glitches in Durham caused delays and stoppages at precincts throughout the day.

Durham County Board of Elections Chair Bill Brian said the county took its electronic voting system offline after problems popped up at several precincts. Poll workers were unable to look up voter registration information digitally, so they turned to paper records. That requires the use of paper forms, and when some precincts ran out of the forms, voting ground to a halt.

“It appeared that some of the data from prior elections had not been cleared out, and people were being improperly listed as having already voted,” Brian said. “They didn’t have the right software, it appears. Why that happened, we don’t know yet.”

He said it was the county’s first year to use electronic voting books.

Voting was halted for one and a half to two hours at the precinct at Bethesda Ruritan Club on South Miami Blvd.

Meanwhile, the county sent runners out to all the precincts to find out whether there had been other disruptions in the voting process.

When the county shifted to the paper system, the precinct at Bethesda ran out of required voting forms. About 20 to 30 voters left the precinct, said Annie Woods, the precinct’s chief judge.

“We did have some to leave,” Woods said. “There were a lot of people who stayed around. Some left and were planning to come back.”

The county election board has also asked the Southern Coalition for Social Justice to provide any evidence it has supporting that request.

“As you know, the epoll books were pulled down and precincts were instructed to use paper poll books,” wrote SCSJ lawyer Allison Riggs. “It has caused precincts to run out of paper ATV (authorization to vote) forms. We have numerous accounts of voters being turned away because the precincts ran out of paper ATV forms, with those voters being told to ‘come back later.’”

The voter lookup computer system was meant to print the forms electronically, but when the software malfunctioned that was impossible.

Riggs said there was a lack of equipment and training.

“Precincts were reporting that they didn’t have scissors” to cut the paper poll books after the machines went down. And furthermore, “Workers were not prepared to work with the paper poll books.”

Stephens was pretty incredulous that the neither the poll workers nor their higher-ups thought to make a quick trip to Walmart to buy scissors and solve the problem in a few minutes: “I mean, how complicated is that?”

Stevens said he sympathized with the voters at the sites in question.

“I have a hard time believing voters were turned away,” he said, but added that he understands why some would have left after being told they weren’t going to be able to vote when they showed up. “Some of those folks probably had to work.”

The State Board of Elections vote limiting the time extension at the Durham precincts was 3-2 along party lines. The board has three Republicans and two Democrats.

Member Maja Kricker, a Democrat, said it was problematic not to extend the Bethesda precinct’s hours to fully compensate for the stoppage. “When they were shut down for two hours, to take them down and not extend for the amount of time they were down I think is not reasonable,” she said.

But board member Rhonda Amoroso, a Republican, said she was troubled that the precinct staffs didn’t immediately go to Plan B when there were problems. “It’s just really outrageous to me that we’d be doing this,” she said. “We’ve had 60 days of voting.”

Around 8 p.m., a trickle of voters at the Bethesda precinct were outnumbered by partisan volunteers and elected officials.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell said the state board’s late decision muddied the water and made it difficult for voters to learn of a second chance to vote. “I heard about it at noon, but they didn’t make the decision until 7,” Bell said.

Bethesda has 4,630 registered voters, records show; 52 percent are Democrats and 17 percent are Republican, with the rest unaffiliated or Libertarian. In 2012, the President Barack Obama won the precinct by 59 votes over Republican Mitt Romney.

Jackie Abonza, 18, who works at Church’s Chicken nearby, tried to vote at Bethesda on her lunch hour but could not. She returned at 7:45 p.m. and was pleased that she was given a second chance to vote.

“I voted for Hillary,” Abonza said. “She has my vote.”

The late voters were given provisional ballots.

Durham was not the only location that reported problems Tuesday.

One precinct in Dare County reported a short interruption, and the State Board of Elections extended voting at the Bogue precinct in Columbus County by 30 minutes.

Staff writer Joseph Neff and news researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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