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IMPORTANT - PLEASE REC: This post clarifies and follows-up on a rec'd diary posted yesterday by urthwalker. This is NOT an issue of dirty tricks or voter suppression, although the net effect is something that could be very serious. Many groups, partisan and non-partisan, are educating voters about the issue, but more still needs to be done. Cross-posted at Facing South

North Carolina is now one of the tightest states in the 2008 presidential election. Pollster.com shows Barack Obama with only a slight 2.2% edge over John McCain. Nate Silver's popular 538.com shows it even closer: By his analysis, Obama's lead is merely .4% -- making NC the tightest state in the country.

With North Carolina's critical 15 Electoral College votes likely to be decided by a razor-thin margin, there is growing concern the race could be affected by the state's use of confusing ballots that under-count tens of thousands of presidential votes each year.

Some background: North Carolina is one of only two states in the country where straight-ticket voting does not count a vote for president. For example, if someone marks the box to vote straight-ticket Republican -- but doesn't also tick off a vote for John McCain at the top of the ballot -- McCain won't get a vote.

The result of the law, which has been on the books for over three decades, is that in every presidential election, North Carolina has an unusually high number of "undervotes" -- ballots that are cast but don't register a vote for president.

In 2000, more than 75,000 votes in North Carolina had no vote in the Bush/Gore presidential race. In 2004, the percentage of undervotes slightly declined, but the total number actually increased -- more than 92,000 ballots didn't register a vote for president.

Here's a chart by computer scientist Dr. Justin Moore at Duke University, using N.C. State Board of Elections data:

NORTH CAROLINA UNDERVOTE -- 2000 & 2004 ELECTIONS

Race / Turnout/ Votes for President / # of Undervote / % Undervote
2000 / 3,015,964 / 2,940,600 / 75,364 / 3.15
2004 / 3,593,323 / 3,501,007 / 92,316 / 2.57

Some undervotes are intentional -- voters who don't like any of the presidential candidates leave it blank on purpose. Some undervotes can also be chalked up to voting machine errors, since undervotes are somewhat different depending on how votes are counted.

But the fact that North Carolina has one of the five highest undervote rates in the country -- the national average was under 2% in 2000 -- makes it clear the state's confusing straight-ticket ballots are a leading factor. An in-depth report on the undervote problem in 2004 by Thomas Hargrove of Scripps Howard News Service concluded:

Both North Carolina and South Carolina historically suffer unusually high undervotes in presidential elections because, by state law, voters who mark the "straight-party-ticket voting" option must also vote separately for president. Every four years, tens of thousands of voters in both states apparently forget to do this.

Indeed, after the high 2004 undervote, the head of the N.C. State Board of Elections agreed the state's confusing ballots were to blame:

Gary Bartlett, executive director of the North Carolina Board of Elections, did not defend the high undervote or suggest voters are ignoring the presidential race. "I was hoping we would improve over what happened in 2000. But this shows a law in our state that needs to be reviewed and probably be changed," Bartlett said.

What kind of impact could this have in 2008? A lot.

Consider the following: Right now, 538.com projects that Barack Obama is at 49.5% in North Carolina and John McCain at 49.1%. Given that there are just under 6.2 million voters currently registered in North Carolina -- and assuming N.C. voter turnout surpasses the 1984 high-water mark and reaches 70% in 2008 -- some 4.3 million votes will be cast this year.

Using current projections, that means the current difference between McCain and Obama is under 17,300 votes in North Carolina -- that's less than a fifth of the 92,000  presidential undervote in 2004.

The Obama campaign is especially concerned, since new voters -- which the campaign has worked so diligently to register -- are unfamiliar with the law and will be most affected. Anecdotal evidence is already rolling in that many Obama voters are not having their vote for president counted, such as urthwalker's post yesterday:

My mother has been working the polls in North Carolina for early voting and has alerted me to something that I think would be important for NC voters to know.  If you circle in the choice for a straight Democratic ticket (or republican for that matter), you ARE NOT casting a vote for the presidential race - you MUST fill that in separately.

She says that in the last few days alone, she has personally seen at least 200 votes intended to go to Obama that were not being counted (in other words, people telling her how excited they are to see Obama elected, only to find out that by selecting the straight democratic line, they never even cast a vote for him).

Some Democrats are using creative measures to counter the confusion. For example, in Durham County they are promoting the "Obama - Straight - Flip," complete with amusing YouTube video.

The key message is that voting in North Carolina requires three steps:

(1) Voting for President
(2) Voting for all other state races (straight ticket, if you like)
(3) And then, if you voted straight-ticket, flipping the ballots to vote for non-partisan races (e.g., judges) and local referendums

Originally posted to ProgressiveSouth on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:21 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I hope this clarifies this issue (27+ / 0-)

    It's a serious problem, and it's important to understand what's happening here.

    Massive voter education and outreach -- before people go to vote, and at polling stations -- will be critical to making sure this doesn't impact the election.

    Blogging for a Progressive South // www.southernstudies.org/facingsouth

    by ProgressiveSouth on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:22:20 AM PDT

    •  thank you. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      KayCeSF

      "Man is free at the moment he wishes to be." - Voltaire

      by DrFrankLives on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:41:01 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Thanks, but it isn't that big a problem. (0+ / 0-)

      I've been voting in NC since '94, and if you can read you won't miss the FACT that you must vote for Prez/Veep first, before you get to the straight ticket option. There are signs up on the booths directly in front of the voter telling them they must vote for Prez/Veep separately, and another to say they must vote non-partisan races (like judges) and initiatives/bond issues separately. Then there are dedicated poll workers who tell the voter when they hand him/her the ballot that they must vote Prez/Veep separately along with non-partisans and bond issues.

      If a voter gets all the way through all that and still doesn't vote for Prez/Veep, it's extremely likely they didn't vote for Prez/Veep on purpose. That is their right just like voting for Prez/Veep is their right. It's been like this since 1967 in NC. People smart enough to sign in are smart enough to vote.

      Maybe people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw bibles.

      by Joy Busey on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 12:11:40 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Breaking? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Bluest Sky

    Under FDR, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Under Bush, "Run for your lives!!!!" Relentless!

    by ablington on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:25:53 AM PDT

  •  What makes anyone think that Dems "undervote" any (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jxg, Joy Busey, ratador

    more than Reps?  Are we stupid?  Can Dems not read the ballot and follow instructions?

    •  Think of it this way- (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Joy Busey, milkbone, MKSinSA

      Assuming that undervoting happens in the same proportion on both sides, by raising this issue early and using Obama's massive infrastructure advantage to get the word out to Democrats, we obtain an advantage in North Carolina.

      Ron Fournier is on the wreck list.

      by beatpanda on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:28:03 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  That is entirely possible (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        MKSinSA

        The more Obama/Democratic forces educate their voters about the issue, the less of a problem it will be on the Dem side.

        Unfortunately, the research indicates it's usually first-time voters who have the hardest problem, and those are Obama people.

        But education and outreach can change that.

        Blogging for a Progressive South // www.southernstudies.org/facingsouth

        by ProgressiveSouth on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:37:55 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  I know both Dems and 'Pugs in NC... (0+ / 0-)

        ...who will NOT vote for McCain or Obama. That is their right, whether I understand it or not. They've been voting for many years, they know how it works.

        Maybe people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw bibles.

        by Joy Busey on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 12:20:46 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  The issue is new vs. old voters (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      milkbone

      The Democratic edge in new registration is huge. The studies and news reports show that new voters unfamiliar with the law are the ones most likely to be affected.

      Hence, Democrats will be disproportionately affected.

      Blogging for a Progressive South // www.southernstudies.org/facingsouth

      by ProgressiveSouth on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:31:33 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I would think that new voters would pay special (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Joy Busey

        attention to the ballot.  Sample ballots are available online in NC.  Take a look at one.  It doesn't seem particularly confusing to me.  The President comes first.  Down below that is an opportunity to vote straight ticket for other offices.  The instructions on the ballot even say that a straight ticket vote doesn't count for Pres and VP.  Let's give our new Dem voters a little bit of credit for having the ability to figure this out.

        •  That would be great (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          MKSinSA

          if true, but that's not how it works. The evidence is pretty clear that it's (1) new and (2) lower-income voters who are disproportionately affected.

          All the data I've seen suggests these are voters that heavily favor Obama.

          Blogging for a Progressive South // www.southernstudies.org/facingsouth

          by ProgressiveSouth on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:42:59 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Well, I'd love to see this evidence that you (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Joy Busey

            cite.  I could understand a problem reading the ballot, that would be related to undereducated voters (and perhaps, accordingly, lower-income voters) but not necessarily new voters.

    •  Actually, research shows Dems make more errors (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MKSinSA

      In know of at least one study a friend (I'm a political scientist) was involved in on Florida 2000.

      By analyzing full ballot data -- data on every mark or every hole punch -- they figured out that democrats were FAR more likely to overvote (more than one hole/mark) or undervote than were GOP ballots.  

      They assigned DEM/GOP based on how they voted in other races (i.e., someone votes for all democratic candidates except makes four different holes for President, assume they are a democrat who made mistakes in voting for Gore).  Palm Beach "butterfly" aside dems had much higher error rates, and in Palm Beach Co. of course it was huge.  

  •  The good news- (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cat Whisperer, MKSinSA

    Thanks to early voting, this problem has been identified before election day, and Obama's crack election protection team can jump on this and get the word out.

    Thanks to everyone pushing this issue.

    Ron Fournier is on the wreck list.

    by beatpanda on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:26:26 AM PDT

  •  from the sample ballot (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cph

    e. A Straight Party vote does not vote for
    US President and Vice President,
    unaffiliated candidates, or nonpartisan
    offices or issues.

    I think the point here is that voters need to check out the sample ballot and read the instructions.  Personally I think people should be encouraged to take the time to vote separately for each race and avoid using the straight party option.

  •  The ballots are confusing (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cph

    but it's the same way for Repubs and Dems.  I got a mailer explaining how to vote and so did my other Dem friends here in WNC.  I am not sure if the Repubs are sending them out as well.

    Plus if you go on the elcetions board site, they also give you instructions.  

    Whether you like it or not, WE ARE ALL AMERICANS!!!

    by lostinamerica2711 on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:29:27 AM PDT

  •  At my polling place, we were told this... (0+ / 0-)

    repeatedly while standing in line, complete with an example ballot.  It was repeated again just before your "actual" ballot was handed to you.

    I just naturally assumed this was happening in every polling place.  Apparently it isn't.

    •  You're right -- it isn't (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MKSinSA

      We're getting reports around the state of people who "lost" their presidential vote.

      We won't know until after the election how big of a problem it is. But clearly the more we talk about it, the more we can make sure everyone knows about the problem.

      Blogging for a Progressive South // www.southernstudies.org/facingsouth

      by ProgressiveSouth on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:35:28 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  So what are people doing in NC (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MKSinSA

    to change the straight ticket balloting?

    That just sucks.  Do any other states do that?

    Hope doesn't come from calculating whether the good news is winning out over the bad. It's simply a choice to take action. ~ Anna Lappe

    by Korry on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:30:38 AM PDT

  •  Republicans will screw up their vote as well. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cph
  •  Thank You (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MKSinSA

    Thanks for posting this, much better than yesterday's sky-is-falling election "fraud" diary. Recc'd and hope it gets plenty more.

    It is an interesting question, though, what percentage of the undervotes are actually intentional. Just from my own personal experience (for whatever anectodal evidence is worth), many people I have known throughout NC, particluarly in the western foothills/mountains and down east tobacco country (or syboeans, but what the heck. Times are changing) are absolutely just the type to have enough distrust of Federal government as to not bother with the top of the ticket at all.

    Not sure if it's enough to get the undervote percentage within or under the national average, but I bet it's higher than one might imagine.

  •  I'll offer the alternative theory (0+ / 0-)

    I believe there are many more Republicans who will vote "straight party" but not Palin (aka McCain) than those who would vote straight Dem but not Obama. I'd bet the undervotes skew Republican.

  •  The "Vote straight-ticket" checkboxes need to go (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MKSinSA

    If Montana had such checkboxes (I think they don't), Republicans would vote for Bob Kelleher, a former GREEN party candidate.

    Can you give us a list of states that have "straight ticket" checkboxes?

    SeattleDanny Election 2008: YouTube versus feeding tube

    by SeattleDanny on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:36:53 AM PDT

  •   have to think Obama knows about this (0+ / 0-)

    and is taking steps to make sure people know.

    •  He does and they are, but ... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MKSinSA

      ... we're still hearing about a LOT of cases of people not getting their presidential vote counted. The more education, the better!

      Blogging for a Progressive South // www.southernstudies.org/facingsouth

      by ProgressiveSouth on Mon Oct 20, 2008 at 10:53:36 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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