'Check every record': County election officials find answers for thousands of provisional ballots cast in 2020 election

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- More than 40,000 North Carolina voters' ballots hang in limbo as they wait for election officials across the state to process their provisional ballots.

Rebecca Day went to the polls for the first time only to be told she already voted.

"I was shocked because I've never voted in my life, so that's what I said, 'I've never voted so it would have been a big deal if I had went to vote,'" said Day, a Pitt County voter.

She filled out a provisional ballot and was left to wonder if her vote will count.

"I never thought before that it would count that much--that's why I never voted before. But having to go and for this to happen, it kind of made me not want to vote ever again. I know that sounds weird but I don't even know if this vote is going to count," Day said.

She's not the only voter to hear there was a problem with her ballot. Multiple viewers reached out to the ABC11 I-Team, expressing confusion over having to cast a provisional ballot.

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Early data from the North Carolina Board of Elections show around 900 other voters cast a provisional ballot this year after being told they already voted. In 2016, this reason led to around 200 provisional ballots.

Hoke County elections director Towanna Jackson explained this issue is often not due to someone actually voting for someone else, but poll workers accidently marking the wrong name.

"In this go around, we were experiencing COVID, your voice is muffled, it's either hard to hear what a person is saying as their name and their address. A person pulls up the wrong person, especially during early voting, I had a lot of that," Jackson said.

Jackson said poll workers have limited access to voter data on Election Day, so the provisional ballot gives voters the opportunity to vote and officials the time to look further into their situation.

Voting at the wrong precinct and errors in registration are some of the top issues each year provisional ballots are cast. Jackson said this year there was a statewide glitch with voter registration conducted at DMVs that led to some records not transferring over to election officials.

Jackson said she is in the process of personally reviewing around 300 provisional ballots in Hoke County.

"I go through each and every one single handedly. So basically, I'll check every record I can. I'll check my incomplete que. I'll check DMV que. I'll check another county to see where their record could be at and I have to document each record I find so my board can make a good decision on that provisional ballot," she said.

An ABC11 I-Team analysis found Hoke County was one of the top counties in the state with the most provisional ballots cast per total in-person voting. One provisional ballot was issued for every 60 votes cast. In Robeson County, provisional ballots were issued more frequently--one for every 28 in-person votes.

Whereas in Wayne, Vance and Burke county, more than 300 in-person votes were cast for every one provisional ballot.

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Several races, including the one for the presidency, have yet to be called in North Carolina.

Sunny Frothingham, a senior research manager at Democracy NC, explained this gap between counties is based on multiple factors.

"High numbers of provisional ballots can sometimes reflect an administrative issue or it can reflect the population who's using that site," she said. "Younger people or low-income people generally move a little bit more often and so you would anticipate more changes that they have to update."

She also said areas that have colleges or a lot of early-voting sites that double as polling locations can increase confusion that would lead to the need for a provisional ballot.

Frothingham noted that less provisional ballots in a county isn't necessarily a good thing.

"When we see a small number of provisional ballots, it could mean that there are fewer voters who have issues, but it could also mean that poll workers are not offering provisional ballots as much as they are supposed to under the law or that they are inadvertently or intentionally discouraging folks from using that provisional ballot process," she said.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections reports around 20,000 fewer provisional ballots cast this year than in 2016 despite 720,000 more people voting this year.

Frothingham said online voter registration options, and more early voters are factors that likely helped reduce the number of provisional ballots needed this year.

"So many people who potentially if they came on Election Day would need to cast a provisional, are able to use that same-day registration system," she said, referencing voters' ability to register in person during early voting, but not on Election Day.

Election officials have until Friday to review the provisional ballots. Voters are able to check whether their ballot is accepted online.

In 2016, less than half of the 61,000 provisional ballots cast were accepted.
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