They say knowledge is power and, in some cases, a lack of knowledge about election procedures may cost people their power to vote.
That’s because some information provided to voters leads them believe that, if they register 24 days before the election, they can’t vote in that election, when in fact they can. Same-day registration during early voting allows them to register and then vote – however, people have to know about the option in order to use it.
Anyone who goes go Guilford County’s election website or many other election websites across the state will be told they have to register 25 days before Election Day. There’s no mention on Guilford County’s election page about the same-day voting option. This could lead some eligible voters to believe they’ve missed the “deadline” to register when in fact the voter hasn’t missed the true deadline.
There are other problems related to early voting as well. For instance, the same-day voter registration option is making it harder for Guilford County election officials – and those in other places as well – to verify that a voter is in fact who they say they are. Same-day registration – a practice approved by state lawmakers in 2007 and one that’s grown as early voting has expanded – allows last minute registration, which means that, in many cases, the Guilford County Board of Elections doesn’t have time to vet voters and prevent ineligible voters from casting ballots. Since same-day registration happens when the voter casts a ballot, election officials in those cases simply have to presume that the voter had a right to register, and the election department counts the vote.
For voters who register well before early voting opens, elections staff confirms residency by mailing verification cards to the address. If a card comes back twice as undeliverable, it meets the statutory requirement for election officials to determine that the would-be voter doesn’t live at the claimed residence, and he or she therefore isn’t allowed to vote.
However, when voters register during early voting – which may be just three days before Election Day and 10 days before the votes must be certified by the elections board – there often isn’t sufficient time for a mailed card to come back, much less time for it to happen twice. Those votes cast are considered valid and, once the vote tally is approved by the Board of Elections, the vote from the ineligible voter counts just as an eligible voter’s vote does.
Days, weeks or months after an official count has been certified, election officials may discover the voter was a fictional creation, someone who lived somewhere other than the claimed address or a person who, for some other reason, had no right to vote in Guilford County. However, by then it’s too late: The election results have been certified by the Guilford County Board of Elections and sent to the state.
The current voter registration guidelines are confusing: Voters can register to vote up until 25 days before Election Day in Guilford County – and across North Carolina – then, for a period, they can’t register to vote in time to vote in that election. Then, during early voting, they can register using same-day registration. However, on Election Day, they once again are unable to register to vote in that election.
For the upcoming Guilford County primary, for instance, voters can register up until Friday, Sept. 15 – which is 25 days before Election Day, Tuesday, Oct. 10. For five days after that, they cannot register in time to vote in that election. Then, on Thursday, Sept. 21, they can use same-day registration at an early voting site to register, until Saturday, Oct. 7, the last day of early voting. On October 10, the day of the election, they will not be allowed to register and vote in that election.
In this situation, eligible voters attempting to follow the law may believe they’ve missed the deadline to register to vote in the upcoming election. The county’s Elections Department website includes a “When Do I Need to Register?” section that states: “If mailed, the registration form must be postmarked at least 25 days prior to the election. If hand-delivered or faxed, the registration form must be received no later than 5:00 p.m. on the 25th day prior to the election.”
The website doesn’t mention same-day registration, so some people who read the instructions might not bother to show up to vote under the assumption that they didn’t register in time. On the other hand, someone who wanders into the voting site unprepared during early voting will be told by election officials at the site that they can register there on the spot.
Also, that voter, by virtue of registering late in the process, may be able to completely avoid the verification process of the same mail check that vets other voters who registered ahead of time.
Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said that, given the time it takes for mail to be returned, the by-mail verification process can be inadequate even if a prospective voter sends in his or her application before the deadline 25 days prior to Election Day. He said that if people attempted to register toward the end of that deadline and still don’t make it onto the election books, they still qualify for same-day registration.
“If they sent it in too late, they can use same-day registration,” Collicutt said.
Though many people may not know that. Collicutt said that there is a link on the county’s elections board page that will take them to information regarding same-day voting but he acknowledged that that could be hard to find and he said that his office was going to change the webpage to make sure people were aware of that. He said the elections office had intended to do so when time drew closer to the early voting period.
As more people use the option, however, and register closer to Election Day, it makes it harder to verify the registrations before a vote is counted. In non-presidential elections, the Board of Elections will generally certify votes one week after the election. If someone registered to vote using same-day registration during early voting then it’s highly unlikely a mailed card will come back twice as undeliverable before the results are certified – so any votes from those who gave false addresses would be counted and certified along with the legitimate votes.
Collicutt explained the process.
“There are some same-day registrations that are so late there’s not time for mail verification,” he said.
He said one returned card isn’t enough to reject a voter application.
“Two cards have to come back,” Collicutt said of the disqualification process provided in state election law.
Collicutt said that, if elections officials find a problem with eligibility before votes are certified, those votes can be disallowed since they were cast during early voting.
“All early votes are retrievable,” Collicutt said.
He added that, when people use same-day registration during early voting, they must provide some documentation that shows where they reside.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections website states that people using same-day registration have to attest to their eligibility by filing out a registration application and signing it. The website also warns that, “Knowingly attesting to false information is a Class One felony.”
A voter using same-day registration also has to show evidence of his or her residence by presenting one of the following documents, with the address on it: a North Carolina driver’s license; a photo ID issued by a government agency, a copy of “a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document showing the voter’s name and address.” A current college photo ID “along with proof of campus habitation,” is also acceptable.
Kathryn Lindley is the chairman of the Guilford County Board of Elections – a board that’s temporarily in limbo since it currently only has two of four seats filled and Gov. Roy Cooper has refused to name a new state elections board. The State Board of Elections is the body that appoints new county elections board members so Guilford County won’t be getting any new members until a new state board is named. Like Collicutt, Lindley said that ballots cast during early voting are retrievable, but, she said, sometimes the board finds out too late that voters were ineligible.
The board either has a week or nine days to certify the elections – it has two extra days when it’s a presidential election.
“You want people to be able to vote if they are eligible but you want a process that is verifiable, and we can’t always meet that time line,” Lindley said. “If someone, for instance, votes on the last Friday of early voting, and we have a week – well, the timing is very difficult.”
Lindley said that, even if the mail service is working well, cards sent don’t always come back for other reasons, which means the voter registration is considered a valid one. She said, for instance, the actual resident might not bother to return the card.
“If the person looks at it and says, ‘Oh, they don’t live here,’ and throws it away, we don’t know that,” she said. “We don’t know how many people just throw it away.”
She said a parent could simply throw a card in the trash can because they know their child has moved out of the house and is now voting in another area. Also, she said, there are sometimes just glitches with the mail.
“We’re really tied to the mail service getting them back,” Lindley said. “I’m not knocking the mail service; they have hundreds of thousands of things to deliver.”
She said that once the board certifies the votes, the vote counts are passed on to the state, which makes those outcomes official.
Lindley said many of these problems could be avoided if everyone simply had to vote on Election Day.
“I really think what we ought to do is vote on Election Day,” she said.
Lindley said having everyone vote in their local polling place on the same day used to offer a key check against voter fraud.
“People around you know who you are, or at least there’s a good chance that they do,” she said. “With early voting, you’re not with people who know you or people who are your neighbors. That was one of the checks and it’s not a check anymore.”
Lindley said that’s especially a concern since no identification is required to vote.
“Because we can’t ask for certain IDs, we don’t know who they are,” she said.
She added that Guilford County’s elections board has a practice of reporting all instances of fraud or suspected improper registration to the state; however, she said, it’s her understanding that some county elections boards in North Carolina don’t do so – especially when races aren’t close. She said there may be a feeling in some places that particular instances of suspected voter fraud don’t need to be reported to state elections officials because the vote didn’t make a difference in an election outcome.
Collicutt said there are other routine checks conducted by his office when elections aren’t taking place as well. He said his staff checks voter registration rolls against lists of felony offenders and lists of the recently deceased. He also said that mail sent is also sent at times to those who haven’t voted in many years to help update the database to keep it accurate.
“We do a lot of different things,” Collicutt said of keeping fraud and other issue from corrupting the voter registration rolls.