Politics & Government

NC elections agency works to avoid late-night result changes, ineligible felon voters

Voters wait in line for early voting at the Lake Lynn Community Center in Raleigh, N.C. Wednesday, October 26, 2016.
Voters wait in line for early voting at the Lake Lynn Community Center in Raleigh, N.C. Wednesday, October 26, 2016. cliddy@newsobserver.com

State election officials say they’re taking steps to avoid some problems seen during November’s election by improving procedures for publishing vote counts and removing active felons from voter rolls.

State Board of Elections executive director Kim Strach provided her post-election report to an N.C. House committee Thursday, highlighting some of the upgrades in the works.

One Election Night problem was the late counting of early votes in Durham County. Because of difficulties reading the memory cards on voting machines, the county didn’t add early voting totals to online records until nearly midnight – even though the state’s website indicated that most of the county was finished reporting totals.

That prompted some confusion and suspicion, because the late addition meant that the vote totals in the governor’s race abruptly went from showing a lead for incumbent Pat McCrory to a slight lead for Democratic challenger Roy Cooper. McCrory later requested and obtained a recount in Durham County, which showed the initial results were accurate.

Strach told legislators that Durham officials handled the problems effectively, but the state’s election-results website failed to make clear to the public that the tallies were incomplete.

“We needed to have a process change,” Strach said. “If those early voting numbers are not in there, we need to let you know that. That’s an improvement that you will see next time we have an election.”

Starting with this year’s election, the online results will show users the status of early votes as well as the number of precincts reporting.

Another concern in the aftermath of November’s election involved felons who cast ballots while serving sentences. In North Carolina, a convicted felon can vote only after completing his or her sentence, including any probation or parole.

The State Board of Elections released an audit last month that found 508 voters who cast ballots last November weren’t eligible to vote – and the vast majority of them were felons serving active sentences.

Strach told lawmakers that the many of the 441 active felons weren’t properly rejected from registering to vote. In some cases, one county canceled a felon’s registration, but the person then moved to another county and was able to register because the county wasn’t aware of the conviction.

The elections agency now will have a statewide database that makes it easier for election workers to check criminal records.

“We are putting those processes in place to make it easier for our counties to remove felons, and do that on the front end when they register,” Strach said.

The audit also found that 41 noncitizens cast ballots, and Strach said her agency has fewer options to prevent that from happening.

“There is not anywhere a citizenship database,” she said, adding that the agency is checking records of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that list immigrants in the country legally. “We have to rely on the fact that when you check that box and lie to us, that’s a felony. I think that’s about the best we can do.”

Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, voiced concern about the lack of a database. “We could in theory have tens of thousands of noncitizens that we don’t know about,” he said. “I’m not saying we do, but in theory we could.”

But Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, said Strach’s report makes him confident that the state’s election procedures are working well.

“North Carolina ought to be proud of the election system that they have had running, both under Democratic and Republican administrations,” he said. “Why do we want to keep messing with a system that has worked? It’s unbelievable to me.”

Rep. Harry Warren, a Salisbury Republican, called on the Board of Elections to carefully review data it recently obtained that could show if any voters cast ballots in multiple states. That information only recently arrived and wasn’t part of the audit.

“I think that is where we see the biggest opportunity for voting violations,” he said. “I don’t think we let our guard down. If just one vote is invalidated by a fraudulent vote, that’s one vote too many.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter