Council seat hangs in balance as elections board counts provisionals


Carolyn Highsmith (front row, center) watches the Forsyth County Board of Elections count absentee ballots, along with opponent John Larson (back row, center).

by Jordan Green

The tabulation of absentee ballots narrows margin in South Ward city council race to one vote as the local board of elections contends with a deluge of provisional ballots.

Carolyn Highsmith’s lead in the razor-thin contest for the Democratic nomination for the South Ward seat on Winston-Salem City Council narrowed from four votes to a single vote on Tuesday, with the Forsyth County Board of Elections’ decision to approve late absentee ballots.

The three-member local election board voted on Tuesday to approve 460 postmarked absentee ballots received by mail on the day before the March 15 primary, which were not counted as part of the initial tabulation of unofficial and incomplete results on election night. The board also considered an additional 126 absentee ballots that were received on election day or the next day that lacked postmarks. On a split vote with the two Republicans prevailing over the board’s lone Democrat, the board elected to disapprove 101 mail-in absentee ballots that were received on the day after the election, reasoning that the law states that absentee ballots may not be accepted after the date of the election. Elections Director Tim Tsujii said it’s safe to infer that the ballots were placed in the mail on election day considering that they arrived on the following day.

Fleming El-Amin, the Democratic board member, argued that the board should “favor” the voters considering that the mistake was made by the US Postal Service.

“I think you make a really good point,” Secretary Stuart Russell said. “But the General Assembly should address it. We’ve got to follow the law.”

The new tabulation and its impact on the South Ward race passed without mention before the board adjourned around 2 p.m., prompting reporters and representatives of the two campaigns to swarm over a staff table. In the confusion, Tsujii directed them to another staff table across the meeting room, but his subordinate didn’t have the vote count, so the group ping-ponged back.

The final outcome of the race remains up in the air, with almost a thousand provisional ballots yet to be counted. Tsujii told the board that his staff had been overwhelmed by provisional ballots, and at Tsujii’s request, the board voted to extend the deadline to Thursday to finalize the provisional ballot count and certify the result. Tsujii said state Elections Director Kim Strach notified elections staff in all 100 counties that state law allows for an extension of the deadline. He said other urban counties across the state experienced similarly high numbers of provisional ballots, and that he expected the Wake County Board of Elections to also vote to extend the certification deadline.

When the board reconvenes on Thursday, the three members will consider 946 provisional ballots. Tsujii said only 47 of those were related to voters not having photo ID, a requirement imposed by a 2013 omnibus elections law overhaul by the Republican-controlled General Assembly that went into effect for the first time with this year’s primary. Tsujii said seven of those voters filled out a “reasonable impediment” declaration allowing their votes to be counted. The remaining 40 were required to appear at the board of elections no later than Monday to present photo ID in order for their votes to be counted; most likely they were not counted.

“Anecdotally, a significant number of [the provisional ballots] is due to voters wanting to choose a different party ballot and precinct transfers,” Tsujii said in an interview with Triad City Beat last week. He explained that when voters move but their voter registration has not been updated, the board of elections redirects them to vote in the precinct where they resided 30 days before the election and automatically updates their voter registration. Some voters choose to vote a provisional ballot in the precinct where they appear rather than go to their proper precinct to vote.

Tsujii, who formerly worked for the Guilford County Board of Elections, was hired to head the Forsyth County elections office only a month before the primary election.

“With this being my first election in Forsyth County, I took the opportunity to assess our performance and would like to recommend some changes,” Tsujii told the board. “Some of the changes I have in mind are to improve on certain procedural practices, and there are some efficiencies that could be improved as well.”

Tsujii will present his recommendations on Thursday.

The March 15 primary election saw long lines in several precincts, with relatively high turnout, although not quite as high as the watershed 2008 presidential primary. Voters at the polling place at First Alliance Church on the south side of Winston-Salem waited up to 90 minutes to vote.

The final upload of votes from First Alliance Church at 12:47 a.m. erased Larson’s 13-vote lead, putting Highsmith up by four votes. Tsujii said the delay was caused by virtue of it being the chief judge’s first experience closing an election. He added that Forsyth County’s experience was not unique, with Mecklenburg County posting results at 1:24 a.m. and Guilford County tabulating past 11 p.m.

“I’m going to look into efficiencies in how we handled election-night results because the chief judges are responsible for bringing back supplies and results,” Tsujii said. “I’m going to look into improvements and efficiencies. Going back to your question about staffing, I think that is a concern that I need to address.”

Tsujii told the board on Tuesday afternoon that his staff still needs to process 380 out of the 946 provisional ballots. The board went ahead and made some decisions about some of the ballots that have already been processed, sometimes discussing individual ballots in painstaking detail.

Tsujii presented four cases to the board in which individual voters voted twice. In two instances, the voters voted in early voting and then returned to the polls on election day and cast an additional provisional ballot. The other two voters, who share the same address in Kernersville, appeared together at the Kernersville early voting site on March 7 and voted at 1:15 and 1:16 p.m. respectively. Then, they returned to the same early-voting site and voted by provisional ballot at 2:05 p.m. and 2:09 p.m.

The board voted unanimously to retract the provisional ballots of all four voters so that only one of their votes would count. All four voters are registered Democrats.

The board also voted to direct Tsujii to contact the voters and cite the statute spelling out that voting twice is a felony, and to inform the state Board of Elections of the matter. Lonnie Albright, the assistant county attorney, said it’s up to the state board to determine whether to refer the matter to the Forsyth County District Attorney for possible prosecution.

Tsujii also reported to the three local board members that an individual who was not registered to vote in Forsyth County appeared at a polling place on election day and filled out an application for a provisional ballot, and the ballot was mistakenly fed into the ballot counter. He told the board members that the ballot cannot be retracted and there was no action they could take, but he thought they needed to know.

“Omigod,” Highsmith gasped from the audience.

To make the episode even more strange, state law provides that when a ballot is cast, a voter’s registration is automatically updated, and consequently the individual is now on the county’s voting roll.

It’s curious process when someone registers to vote by casting an unauthorized ballot.