I. What Are Provisional Ballots? And why should I care?
Running an election is a massive and complicated undertaking, requiring (in the case of North Carolina this year) 4.7 million people to show up at the right time at the right places and carefully follow detailed, inflexible instructions. Even more unlikely, it requires a creaking and only marginally competent bureaucracy (the state Board of Elections plus 100 county boards) to accurately keep track of tens of millions of pieces of information. Who is legally registered to vote? At what addresses? Who gets which kind of ballot (local races, bond issues and the like mean an election involves hundreds of different ballot styles across the state)?
Human nature being what it is, mistakes happen. Lots of them. A precinct’s boundaries change, causing some uninformed voters to show up at the wrong polling place on Election Day. The Department of Motor Vehicles loses a stack of completed voter registration forms (an all too common occurrence in North Carolina), presenting thousands of would-be voters with the unpleasant Election Day surprise of discovering that their names do not appear on the rolls of authorized voters. Computers relied upon by poll workers break down or provide incorrect information. There’s no end to the possible ways the electoral process can fail the occasional voter.
And, unforgivably, malfeasance sometimes happens too. Especially in a state like North Carolina, where GOP-engineered voter suppression presents voters of color with countless potential gotchas specifically designed to deny them access to the voting booth.
Provisional ballots provide a last-ditch chance to correct these and other wrongs, by allowing the would-be voter to vote provisionally – that is, provided that a post-Election Day review determines that he or she indeed had the right to vote. The fail-safe mechanism that provisional balloting provides is beloved by voting rights champions for obvious reasons, and is despised by would-be vote suppressors. Indeed, the North Carolina GOP’s recently overturned “monster voter suppression law” attempted to impose severe limits on provisional balloting in order to make voter suppression more efficient.
II. What Are Acceptable Reasons For Casting a Provisional Ballot in North Carolina?
The State Board of Elections categorizes the reasons for filing provisional ballots as listed in the table below, which also shows the fractions of all provisionals cast for those reasons in both 2016 and 2012.
Most of these categories are self-explanatory, but a few require some discussion.
Previously Removed: the voter was unpleasantly surprised to learn that he had been purged from the rolls of current registered voters, either for inactivity (failing to vote in several general elections in a row) or for more nefarious (and illegal) reasons, such as the recently overturned mass purging of black voters by the boards of elections in Beaufort, Moore, and Cumberland counties working in collusion with GOP vote suppressors.
No Acceptable ID: The universal voter ID requirement imposed by the GOP’s “monster voter suppression law” was overturned by a federal court this year. But North Carolina law has long required – and still requires – two special classes of voters to show an acceptable photo ID: first-time voters, and those who wish to register and vote at the same time during the Early Voting period (so-called ‘One-Stop’ voting).
Jurisdiction Dispute: The voter expected to vote on a local issue or candidate, but was given a ballot lacking that race (recall the hundreds of different ballot styles used across the state in each election).
Voted During Extended Hours: Computer glitches or human errors on the part of poll workers can sometimes bring voting to a halt in isolated precincts. When that happens, the State Board of Elections can (and sometimes does) extend poll hours for those locations. Voters who cast ballots during those extended hours are given provisional ballots.
It’s worth noting the huge jump that No Registration Record provisionals took in 2016 (63% of all provisionals, or 34,000 ballots; up from 51% or 26,000 ballots in 2012). Along with the illegal purging of black voters by three counties discussed above, this year’s voting was also marred by voter registration applications lost or otherwise unreported by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles – an annual ritual of bureaucratic incompetence (at best) here in North Carolina.
III. How A Provisional Ballot Becomes A Tabulated Vote – Or Doesn’t
During the 10-day canvassing period following Election Day (this year ending on Nov. 18th), county boards of elections research each provisional ballot individually and decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether or not the voter was qualified to vote. During the research period the ballot remains in a sealed envelope. If the voter is judged to be qualified to vote the envelope is opened, the ballot is tabulated, and those votes are added to the county’s totals.
The ballot’s sealed envelope prevents the grossest form of skullduggery by board of elections officials – allowing their determination to be influenced by whether or not they like the way the voter voted. But it’s an imperfect system nonetheless. During their research the board members are aware of the provisional voter’s age, gender, address, race, and party affiliation. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess with pretty high confidence what votes are sealed inside that envelope. Which is why the research process is typically watched by hordes of attorneys representing the state’s political parties.
Not surprisingly, different reasons for voting provisional ballots meet with different degrees of success in securing ballot approval during the research process. Here’s what those approval rates looked like in 2012 (the last year for which county boards of elections were not under Republican control):
We’ll be referring back to these approval rates throughout our ongoing coverage of this month’s provisional counting process, using them as a rule of thumb to judge how wisely – or foolishly – county boards are handling their enormous responsibility of deciding who may vote, and who may not.
We’ll also be eyeing this year’s approval rates by race and party affiliation. We’ll share the 2012 numbers with you in an upcoming installment.
IV. What’s At Stake This Year
North Carolina Republicans were handed two jolts last Tuesday night: an African American Democrat, Michael Morgan, was elected to the state supreme court (handing Dems a 4-to-3 majority on the state’s highest court), and Governor McCrory fell 5,000 votes short of winning re-election. McCrory has so far refused to concede the election, awaiting the results of provisional ballot counting and, following that, a possible re-count. As we reported yesterday, the demographics of this year’s provisionals don’t look good for McCrory.
There are already credible rumors circulating that Republicans in the state’s General Assembly are conspiring to nullify the will of the people, as expressed last Tuesday night, by changing state law in an “emergency session” to enable McCrory to appoint two additional justices to the Supreme Court (thus restoring Republican control there). So it’s not unreasonable to be concerned that the GOP may likewise be plotting to nullify McCrory’s election loss, by directing county boards of elections (all of which are controlled by Republicans this year) to engage in a bit of ‘creative’ research as they decide which provisional ballots to count, and which to throw out.
We’ll be watching the provisional counting process like a hawk, and reporting on it in near-real time here at Insight(u)s Blog. By tweeting and sharing these reports you can help raise awareness regarding this arcane yet critical election process – and put NC Republicans on notice that the whole world is watching.
Stay tuned. Nipping potential GOP election theft in the bud is every Tar Heel’s civic responsibility regardless of party affiliation – because the chaos, and perhaps even violence, that might otherwise result from NC Republican party bosses’ bad judgement in this matter are too horrible to contemplate.