SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - The election fraud investigation that drew national attention to southeastern North Carolina may not have had anything to do with New Hanover County, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Rae Hunter-Havens, executive director of the New Hanover County Board of Elections, said at a local precinct meeting in late February a man asked her if it was OK for them to pick up their neighbor’s absentee ballot.
It was a joke but Hunter-Havens said she still made sure to tell him that doing so would be illegal.
Voter confidence, she said, is not a joke.
In the wake of the North Carolina State Board of Elections’ decision to call for a new race in the 9th congressional district, Elon University conducted a survey of North Carolina voters, and more than half of the respondents said they considered election fraud to be a “major problem” in the state. Nearly one in four said they were “not at all” confident in the fairness of future elections.
Hunter-Havens said the effect the issues in Bladen and Columbus could have on other counties is significant. Lower voter confidence typically correlates to lower turnout, she said.
The next election in New Hanover County will be the 2019 municipal races, where voter turnout rarely climbs to even 20 percent.
Hunter-Havens said she hopes transparency can overcome concern for voters.
“We really just want (voters) to understand that we have numerous checks and balances in place that ensure that the election is fair, that it is accurate, that we’re providing as high a level of service as we actually can,” she said.
One of the ways the county and state keep track of issues are through formal incident reports, which are typically filled out by election officials or precinct workers, but anyone can request to fill one out.
WECT requested the incident reports from New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties that were filled out during the 2018 general election.
A total of 223 reports were filed across the three counties: 111 in New Hanover, 72 in Brunswick and 40 in Pender.
The NCSBE provided a list of public-submitted incident reports, 12 of which were from Columbus County, and included several reports of precincts not having ballots when polls opened.
Other than the issues in Bladen, Robeson and Columbus counties, NCSBE spokesperson Patrick Gannon said 2018 was relatively uneventful, and experienced the same level of issues that is expected.
“During each election, hundreds of early voting sites are open, and North Carolina has about 2,700 Election Day precincts,” Gannon said. “Incidents, typically minor, are expected, both with equipment malfunctions and with individuals as emotions can run high during elections.”
Local officials said they help the elections office to understand what voters are experiencing when they go to cast a ballot.
“We tell them, if you think there’s a chance that I’m going to hear about it at the office, you put it on an incident report,” Brunswick County Elections Director Sara Knotts said, adding the reports can also help with reconciling any issues or discrepancies after the fact. “We just want to make sure that everything lines up, and when it doesn’t, sometimes those incident reports can shed light.”
New Hanover County uses a different incident form than the state-issued form used in Brunswick and Pender counties.
The state has two different incident forms — one for voting equipment and one for general incidents. New Hanover’s form is a combination of the two.
New Hanover’s form also differentiates between the iVotronic and m100 voting machines. For the purposes of this article, WECT combined those two into one category to match the state form’s “Equipment hardware failure or malfunction” item.
When in doubt, the form includes the option for the person filling out the form to mark “other” if they are not sure into which category the incident falls.
“Equipment hardware failure or malfunction” was the most common type of specific incident reported in all three counties, with a total of 36.
In many cases, the reports marked “other” were general incident reports that didn’t have the option to note an equipment malfunction, because the state has that separate form.
The equipment failures included everything from paper jams to power outages, and several voters complained the iVotronic or other touchscreen machines were malfunctioning or “changing” their votes.
In one instance in Brunswick County, a voter refused to vote because he felt the machine was faulty after a calibration issue caused him to have to select a candidate several times.
The state is phasing-out the iVotronic later this year, and though it will make elections more expensive due to the need to print more paper ballots, Hunter-Havens anticipates the county will continue to see a drop in equipment-based incidents.
“Typically [iVotronics] present more issues, so I would expect to have less equipment issues with paper ballots being the primary voting method.”
While equipment failures were the most common, human error can lead to incidents as well.
“Each election is a mammoth undertaking,” Gannon said. “Remember that poll workers typically work only a couple days a year and often, despite training, are learning on the job as situations arise.”
In Brunswick County, 147 voters who visited the Leland Cultural Arts Center one-stop location were given the wrong ballot when precinct workers confused precinct number for ballot style on the one-stop application.
The only difference in the ballots, Knott said, was the North Carolina State House of Representatives race, and if a voter wasn’t familiar with who should be on the ballot, it went unnoticed.
Knotts said when the elections office realized what was happening, she notified the NCSBE and her staff immediately went to the site to re-train the officials.
Brunswick County did an audit of the one-stop location and mailed letters to each affected voter on Oct. 24 informing him or her that they needed to vote again. If the voter didn’t return to cast a new ballot, their votes were cast for all the races except the U.S. House.
Afterward, Knotts said she and her staff instituted a new training protocol, requiring all workers to practice loading ballots correctly.
Of the 223 incident reports, 65 were marked “Other” and another 22 were not marked at all.
- Chemical spill: On Oct. 26, workers noticed a “noxious smell” at the Hampstead annex early voting site. A cleaning agent had been spilled, and the county manager suggested they evacuate. Poll workers were given the choice to leave, but all five stayed and helped properly shut down the site. Then, when the spill was resolved, followed the protocol for re-opening. The workers were recognized by the NCSBE during a webinar for their responsiveness.
- Police called: During one-stop voting, police were called when an argument escalated. The report says a woman was allegedly reading out candidate names and making “derogatory comments” loud enough for others to hear while helping another voter. When confronted, the woman claimed she was being racially profiled and became upset to the point that the poll worker called the police.
- Police called over dog: A woman brought a dog into the Oak Island Elks Lodge polling place. When asked by the chief judge to take the dog outside, and offered assistance with such according to the report, the woman allegedly became “belligerent” and the chief judge called the police. Ultimately, the woman removed the animal, voted, and the situation was resolved.
- Open carry: On Oct. 29, precinct officials at the Leland Cultural Arts Center were unsure of what to do when a civilian voter entered the polling place with a weapon on his hip. The elections board has no weapon policy but defers to the facility. In this case, the LCAC only allows uniformed officers to carry weapons, but officials noted there are no signs at the location indicating that policy, so they decided to do nothing.
New Hanover County
- Electioneering: On Election Day, there were numerous complaints at the Moose Lodge on Carolina Beach Road of electioneers crossing the 50-foot buffer zone. According to the report, the chief judge at that location warned them three times, and another official showed the campaign workers where the 50-foot line was. The official noted she warned the electioneers she would call the sheriff if another complaint came in.
- 'Erroneous activity’: A poll worker at Myrtle Grove Elementary checked himself in and printed his own application to vote form before taking a ballot and attempting to vote. The chief judge at that location noticed and cancelled his vote, requiring him to go through another poll worker to complete the balloting process.
After the 9th district investigation, Hunter-Havens and Knotts said making sure precinct officials are well-trained is even more top of mind.
The absentee ballot scheme the state determined was being run in Bladen, Robeson and possibly Columbus County was only one aspect of the state’s case during the four-day hearing in February.
The other two were related to how the election was run on a local level, including early voting totals being leaked prior to Election Day, and the Bladen County Board of Elections office being drastically behind on security protocols.
The mismanagement was so evident that the state will be stepping in and monitoring the upcoming special elections in Bladen and Robeson counties.
“I think [in] every county, we want to make sure that we train our officials to follow the protocol,” Hunter-Havens said.
She added that based on conversations she has already had, she thinks voters in New Hanover County trust the process.
“Several people volunteered that, they really felt that the board of elections here and hopefully the community here … that they have enough respect for the system that they wouldn’t do that,” she said, referring to the issues in Bladen County.
“So, I’m hoping that’s indicative of a larger level of confidence in the entire county.”
Across the river in Brunswick County, Knotts said that confidence will be key moving into future election cycles.
“I think having voters that are confident that we’re doing everything we can to have fair and honest elections, that’s really important, because that’s what’s going to give them the go-ahead to get out and go cast their ballot,” she said.