8 Durham County precincts got extended voting – but not as much as the county wanted

Tom Clark, assistant judge, and Kem Gilmore get forms to voters the old-fashioned way Tuesday at E.K. Powe Elementary School voting precinct in Durham. A computer glitch shut down the county's new electronic voting system, causing delays at some precincts.
Tom Clark, assistant judge, and Kem Gilmore get forms to voters the old-fashioned way Tuesday at E.K. Powe Elementary School voting precinct in Durham. A computer glitch shut down the county's new electronic voting system, causing delays at some precincts. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The N.C. Board of Elections Tuesday night extended voting in eight Durham County precincts for 20 to 60 minutes – short of the time requested by the local board – after software glitches interrupted voting there earlier in the day.

Two of the eight were allowed to stay open an hour longer than planned, but Durham County’s board had unanimously asked the state for permission to extend voting by 90 minutes in all eight precincts. In one precinct, voting had stopped for two hours; in others, down-time ranged from 20 to 45 minutes, elections officials reported.

During a special meeting that ended just a half hour before most polls closed, state board chair Grant Whitney Jr. said he didn’t agree with taking a “one-shot approach” to extend time for all precincts equally. “We’re kind of running out of time here,” he said, encouraging the board to find a compromise “without doing this into the middle of the night.”

At the end of the conference call, the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said the board’s decision was “immoral and unconstitutional and un-American.” He called it a “travesty” that the board didn’t accept the Durham County board’s request. “We’re simply fighting for 90 minutes when we’ve known about this since this morning,” he said.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook had urged the state board to follow the bipartisan request of the Durham County elections board, made up of two Republicans and a Democrat. “Especially in light of the fact that Durham County had limited early voting sites, we have to ensure that voters have equal access to the ballot box,” Mook said.

Durham County Board of Elections Chair Bill Brian said the county took its electronic voting system off-line 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.

Meanwhile, an emergency hearing was held late Tuesday, where 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 precincts 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. But he added some criticism: “Durham, historically, hasn’t figured out how to carry out an election.”

Allison Riggs, senior attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said voters had been turned away. “Residents all over Durham County experienced a number of issues because of these technical glitches, including long lines and waits.…It is unacceptable to have Election Day ruined by technical problems.”

The North Carolina Republican Party opposed extending voting hours for the entire county. In a statement, Thomas Stark, the party’s general counsel, said the “brief period of known voting interruption” had been resolved promptly by local election workers, and he said there was no evidence to justify extending hours for the whole county.

By law, Stark said, votes cast during the extension would be provisional ballots, “and whether those provisional ballots would be counted are subject to post-election legal proceedings. We do not want any voter to be disenfranchised by relying on a provisional ballot cast under the false expectation their ballot will automatically be counted.”

Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt criticized Republicans for opposing the extension of hours, and called the problems in Durham County “unconscionable.”

“It follows a deeply troubling pattern of disenfranchisement” of voters in the state,” Hunt said in an email at about 5:30 p.m. “…I just saw footage of the tremendously long line at North Carolina Central University’s polling location, where only 40 people have been able to vote over the last three hours.”

The Durham County software problem report was one of several gathered across the state by ProPublica, which is tracking problems in polling places. The state board of elections also extended voting for 30 minutes in one precinct in Columbus County, where the polls opened 45 minutes late because of printer problems.

Other problems

Other places reported voting machine problems, and some voters who had registered to vote or updated their addresses at the state Department of Motor Vehicles saying they had problems voting at some polling sites.

ProPublica said there were optical scanner issues reported in Cleveland County. Those occurred at the Waco and Kings Mountain South polling stations, said Dayna Causby, director of the Cleveland County Board of Elections. Paper ballots are used there, Causby said, and the machines they’re tabulated on can periodically fail – so new replacement tabulators were brought in.

“We prepare for that with backups. Procedure for the last 10 years has been to prepare those backups to roll out to precincts,” Causby said.

ProPublica noted 34 reports of DMV-related trouble in North Carolina.

Local voting officials said it’s not unusual for some voters who register through the DMV to encounter issues. Most are typically caused by a lag in the transfer of electronic information from DMV offices to local election offices, said Mary Jane Garver, deputy director of the Gaston County Board of Elections.

These voters can still vote using provisional ballots, she said. Those will be verified later, based on the issue date on the voter’s driver’s license.

“We tell everybody: When a person comes to vote, we don’t turn a person away,” Garver said.

Kristin Mavromatis, public information manager at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections, said via email that the DMV issue with voting “is common.”

“We are able to research and if truly registered at DMV there will be a record and the ballot will count.”

As of early afternoon, a few other polling place disruptions had been reported to the Observer in the Charlotte area.

Scott Rogers, voting at the Midwood International & Cultural Center, said he tried to select the button to vote for Donald Trump 10 to 15 times before it worked. “It may have been a sensitive or slow computer, but seemed like an odd experience,” Rogers wrote.

Others said they experienced long lines during early voting and on Election Day, prompting them to leave, with plans to return at a later time.

The Charlotte Observer is participating in Electionland, a ProPublica project covering access to the ballot and problems that prevent people from exercising their right to vote during the 2016 election.

The Observer is monitoring voting problems in the area. Those who experience any can contact the newsroom here.

The Raleigh News & Observer contributed.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta