Politics & Government

35,500 NC voters used ‘provisional’ ballots, but many of their votes won’t count

Election Day can be hectic enough for North Carolina voters as it is, but imagine waiting in line only to be told you can’t vote on a regular ballot. That’s what happened to Tori Ludwig.

Ludwig recently moved into a new home in Franklin County from Wake County. The house is so new that the registration system did not recognize her address when Ludwig initially tried to register to vote.

Determined to still vote, Ludwig showed up to her polling place on Election Day with a water bill in hand to prove she was a resident of Franklin County. That still wasn’t enough.

The solution offered to Ludwig?

A poll worker “did say I was going to be able to cast a provisional ballot,” Ludwig said. “It wasn’t super appealing.”

“It frustrates me when I pay taxes on my house when I bought it and I pay a water and sewer bill to Franklin County on my property address but they aren’t able to reconcile the system,” Ludwig said.

Ludwig filled out a provisional ballot — one of more than 35,500 such ballots this year in North Carolina. She was assured her vote would still count.

Provisional ballots are offered to any voter who doesn’t have their registration on file when they show up to vote. People are also offered provisional ballots if they go to the wrong polling place to cast a ballot. Basically, a voter may be asked to vote using a provisional ballot if their eligibility as a voter is being questioned.

These voters are researched by members of the county or state board of elections, who will determine if their votes will count or not by Nov. 16. They will also determine what parts of the ballot count. If a voter cast a ballot in the wrong district, then their votes for local positions, such as for the General Assembly, may not be valid, whereas their votes for statewide races, such as the North Carolina state Supreme Court, could hold.

You can check the status of your provisional ballot on the state election board’s website at https://vt.ncsbe.gov/RegProvPIN/

In 2016, there were more than 60,000 provisional ballots. Almost 22,000 of these provisional ballots were fully counted, state elections board spokesman Pat Gannon said, and about 5,200 were partially counted. That means about 34,000 ballots were not counted.

Provisional ballots by the numbers

About 5,700 of this year’s ballots come from Wake County. So even though Wake makes about 10 percent of the state’s population, it was responsible for 16 percent of the provisional ballots cast.

About half of the provisional ballots from Wake County were cast by Democrats, according to Gerry Cohen, a former special counsel to the North Carolina General Assembly, who analyzed data from the state elections board.

“Provisional ballots tend to be cast by people who are transient,” Cohen said. “This micro-universe of voters tends to be more Democratic because they tend to be more transient.”

There were at least 16,000 more provisional ballots this year than in 2014. A 2013 elections law eliminated out-of-precinct voting. So in the 2014 elections, Cohen said, provisional ballots were not accepted for voters in the wrong precinct. That law was later overturned in court.

Another key difference between 2014 and 2018 is the voter turnout. Almost 750,000 more North Carolina voters made their way to the polls this year than in 2014.

Vote against signs
Chris Weedy and Jimmy Creech are offering signs from their Raleigh home urging people to vote against all six constitutional amendments in the November midterm elections in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Chris Weedy

Elections aren’t over yet

Usually, provisional ballots don’t greatly alter the results from Election Night. This year could provide a few exceptions.

In a few close state races this year, provisional ballots could determine if some Republican incumbents will be able to hold onto their seats.

Democrat Rachel Hunt had a narrow, 64-vote lead over Republican state Rep. Bill Brawley, with provisional ballots yet to be accounted for. All other Mecklenburg County Republican House members lost to Democrats last week.

The provisional ballots will also determine the outcome of a race in New Hanover County. Just 36 votes put Republican state Sen. Michael Lee behind challenger Harper Peterson on Election Night.

Both of these races are currently within the margin for a recount.

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