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In the 2020 election, with only a few hundred votes separating winner and loser in the race for chief justice on the state’s Supreme Court between victor Paul Newby and incumbent Cheri Beasley, every one of the 5.54 million votes cast mattered in November in North Carolina.
In contests that close, provisional ballots — despite consistently making up less than 1% of the total votes in North Carolina — could sway the outcome of numerous races at the statewide and local levels.
When a person’s eligibility to cast a vote isn’t clear, election workers can allow them to cast a provisional. After the polls close, county election officials decide whether that person’s ballot should be approved in full or only for certain contests.
Under North Carolina law, they can reject all or part of a ballot if it was not in the proper precinct, the voter was not properly registered in the county or the voter was ineligible to vote in all or some contests.
In November, roughly 40% of provisional ballots cast were fully or partially approved in North Carolina. But the distribution of provisional ballot use and approval is not even across the state. Some counties consistently rank high or low in provisional ballot use.
“We also tend to see consistency across counties across years,” said Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University. “It’s clearly county-level explanations to this in addition to individual-level explanations.”
Cooper said a county consistently ranking one way or another doesn’t mean there’s necessarily anything “nefarious” going on.
“A lot of it is endemic to the nature of the county,” Cooper said.
But provisional ballots are worth monitoring, he said, because high provisional ballot use rates can signal other issues.
“It’s like when your tire gauge on your car says your tire pressure’s low,” he said. “It may not really be that low. It may not be a problem. It may be change in the temperature. But it may actually be that you have a real flat tire. I think that what it says is, ‘Hey, you should pay attention to this. You should try to figure out why we have such high rates compared to other people.’ And it may come back as something you can’t do anything about.”
An unusual year
When voters cast a provisional ballot, they must give a reason for the inability to cast a standard ballot. Four reasons account for more than 90% of provisional ballots cast by North Carolina voters in November. Nearly two-thirds said no record of their registration existed.
Other reasons included being previously removed from a county’s list of voters (13%); voting at the incorrect precinct (10%); and not reporting a change in address that took place 30 days or more prior to Election Day (9%).
Despite a record-setting election for North Carolina in overall ballots cast, the number of provisional ballots decreased from 60,643 to 40,767.
Voting patterns shifted in 2020, due in large part to the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hesitance about in-person voting created a massive surge in absentee voting and early voting.
In 2016, in-person voting on Election Day accounted for one-third of the vote total, while in 2020, it accounted for only 16% of ballots cast. Absentee voting increased from 4% of the voting total in 2016 to 18% of total votes in 2020.
Rachel Raper, director of elections in Orange County, said her county saw early in-person voting decrease slightly this past election, but “voting by mail just went through the roof.”
“Absentee, I think we got back a little under 5,000 in 2016 and then 26,000 in 2020,” said Raper, whose county has one of the state’s lowest provisional ballot use rates.
The shift away from Election Day voting may have influenced their provisional ballot use.
“The vast majority of our voters voted early,” Raper said. “We only had out of almost 87,000 ballots cast, only 10% of those ballots were cast on Election Day, and you get your provisional ballots on Election Day.”
For the second straight presidential election year, Robeson County led North Carolina in provisional ballot use rate, with only 35.51 votes for every provisional cast. Located in the southeastern part of the state along the South Carolina border, Robeson had a rate much higher than second-place Jackson County in Western North Carolina, which recorded 62.62 votes for every provisional received.
Multiyear patterns with provisional ballot use rates are common, Cooper said. Ten of the top 20 counties in provisional use in 2020 were also in the top 20 for provisional use in 2016: Robeson, Jackson, Pasquotank, Onslow, Hoke, Harnett, Pitt, Cumberland, Richmond and Jones counties.
Burke County in Western North Carolina had the lowest use rate for provisionals, followed by Vance County, northeast of the Triangle along the Virginia border.
Like the top fifth, 10 of the 20 counties in the bottom fifth in provisional use rate in 2020 were also in 2016’s bottom fifth: Orange, Cherokee, Henderson, Northampton, Polk, Chatham, Guilford, Mecklenburg, Buncombe and Catawba counties.
A multifaceted issue
Some voters may be more likely to cast a provisional ballot than others. College students, for example, may register in their home counties but opt to vote in the county where their school is located.
Robeson County, which leads the state in provisional use, is home to UNC Pembroke, a UNC system university with more than 8,000 students. Other top-20 provisional use rate counties with UNC system universities include No. 2 Jackson (Western Carolina), No. 3 Pasquotank (Elizabeth City State), No. 9 Pitt (East Carolina) and No. 11 Cumberland (Fayetteville State).
Unlike some other counties with UNC system universities, Orange County’s provisional use rate was not impacted by the presence of a college campus. Raper was not surprised, noting of UNC Chapel Hill, “making sure that people are registered to vote is very important on that campus.”
Voter turnout may also influence provisional use rates. Despite a 14% increase from 2016, Robeson still ranked second-to-last in voter turnout in 2020, suggesting a correlation between counties with low voter turnout and high provisional ballot use.
“I think that does make sense,” Cooper said.
“Again, a part of it is just the nature of these counties. The places with lower turnout rates tend to also have a larger number of people in poverty. I don’t know if it’s causal, but I think the correlation is very interesting.”
Robeson has the highest poverty rate in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Voter demographics are not the only possible driver of provisional ballot use. Election issues may influence who uses a provisional ballot.
Days after pledging his support for federal recognition of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina last October, President Donald Trump visited Lumberton, Robeson’s county seat. The Lumbee Tribe has 55,000 members in North Carolina, with the majority based in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland and Scotland counties.
A visit from the president and an emphasis on a potential federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe may have contributed to higher turnout by Robesonians who voted provisionally because they were “previously removed” from the rolls.
“A lot of people don’t vote unless it’s a big, controversial election — like this past presidential was,” said Tina Bledsoe, the director of the Robeson County Board of Elections. “So, some people I know hadn’t voted in 20 years. Of course, they were removed due to list maintenance — removed for not voting. In that case, we let them vote a provisional ballot.”
But beyond county-specific reasons such as the presence of a university or fluctuations in voter turnout and voting trends, one overlooked factor in provisional use rate is “administrative capacity,” Cooper said.
A 2019 study of provisional ballots in North Carolina from 2012-16 showed that “in counties with more than one polling place per precinct, the expected count of provisional ballots cast decreased by 7 percent.”
An increase in provisional ballot use may show less about the demographics of voters and more about the administrative process.
“I think it is about having fewer (election) workers,” Cooper said, “and it’s about list maintenance being behind. There’s so much that goes into election administration.”
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