State Politics

Voting rights group: March primary signals problems for NC voters

Democracy North Carolina, a voting-rights advocacy organization, recorded the experiences of more than 1,400 North Carolina residents whose votes in the March primary election did not count and shared them with a federal appeals court on Thursday.

Bob Hall, the organization’s director, told reporters he thought the anecdotes and data from thousands of voters bolster the arguments of the NAACP and others challenging the state’s new voter ID law.

“The problems Democracy NC documented in the March 2016 primary represent a smaller-scale preview of the massive problems that await voters in November,” Hall said.

Democracy NC filed a so-called “friend-of-the-court,” or amicus, brief in the federal lawsuit challenging many provisions of a 2013 elections law overhaul. The case is on appeal after U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder issued a 465-page ruling upholding the 2013 changes adopted by the Republican-led General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.

The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled arguments in the case for June 21.

On Thursday, Darlene Azarmi, a registered Buncombe County voter who also is a western field organizer for Democracy NC, recounted her attempt to vote in March after losing her North Carolina driver’s license.

Initially, Azarmi was told she could not vote at all without an ID. But because she knew the General Assembly had added an accomodation to the law in 2015 for a “reasonable impediment,” Azarmi told the precinct worker she should be able to cast a ballot. Only after talking with the precinct judge was she given a provisional ballot.

Then Azarmi received the wrong ballot for voters claiming a reasonable impediment, but only realized it after she thought it was too late. Because of her work with Democracy NC, though, she knew the Buncombe County elections director and was able to get things worked out and have her vote counted.

“Most voters don’t have the experience of being trained voting advocates,” Azarmi said.

Because the lawsuit challenging the 2013 election law overhaul was pending in federal court, North Carolinians were able to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day. But if Schroeder’s ruling stands once appeals are exhausted, voters will not be able to do that in November.

Democracy NC found that more than 29,000 voters were able to participate in the March primary by using either same-day registration or voting outside of their precincts, another possibility eliminated by the 2013 law.

Hall and his researchers also found that counties varied on what they considered “reasonable impediments.”

Some counties, such as Mecklenburg, initially ruled that voters who did not have a valid ID could not say their school schedules were “reasonable impediments.”

But the state board overruled the county, saying that if a work schedule were a reasonable impediment cited in the law then a school schedule should be, too. On Thursday, the Mecklenburg County board held another canvass in which 13 previously uncounted provisional ballots were counted in time for the state’s official canvass on May 31.

The following counties did extra checks because of problems, including with provisional ballots: Alamance, Anson, Cabarrus, Caldwell, Clay, Cleveland, Cumberland, Durham, Duplin, Forsyth, Franklin, Granville, Halifax, Henderson, Onslow, Perquimans, Rowan, Sampson, Washington, Yadkin, Bladen, Robeson, Gates and Ashe.

Hall praised the state board for correcting “many of the wrongs identified from the March primary election process.” “Nevertheless,” he said, “the evidence of the voting law’s harm to voters and the integrity of the voting process continues to mount.”

The problems, Hall added, affected black and Latino voters at a higher rate than white voters, a theme in the lawsuit going before the 4th Circuit appeals judges.

Kim Strach, director of the State Board of Elections, issued a statement on Thursday reacting to the Democracy NC report. She said the board was pleased that 99.5 percent of the March primary voters brought their identification to the polls and 70 percent of the provisional ballots of those who could not obtain a photo ID were counted.

“Our goal is for every voter to have a positive and uniform experience at North Carolina’s 2,709 precincts and every early voting location,” Strach said. “... For three years, the State Board of Elections has educated and assisted voters to prepare the state for voter ID.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1