Voters confused about new N.C. congressional voting districts

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As primary day nears and early voting begins, Buncombe elections board to ask for $38K to educate voters on changes

At the top of her street, one side of the Kimberly Rhodes' West Asheville street is in the 10th Congressional District. The other is in the 11th. It changes back at the bottom. All in all, Rhodes said, it's confusing to figure out. And she's not alone. Angie Newsome/Carolina Public Press

Kimberly Rhodes, an independent voter in Asheville, said she is torn between supporting Patsy Keever and Terry Bellamy in the 10th Congressional District’s Democratic Party primary.

But, she won’t have a chance to vote for either.

Rhodes, who lives on Clinton Avenue in West Asheville, assumed that after the state’s redistricting process, she would be placed in newly redrawn 10th Congressional District. Last July, the N.C. General Assembly proposed a redrawn map of the state’s 13 districts. Now, Buncombe County is divided into two districts: the eastern portion of the county in the 10th, while the western portion remains in the 11th District.

However, like some of her Clinton Avenue neighbors, Rhodes has remained in the 11th District.

This image, from the N.C. State Board of Elections mapping site, illustrates why some Asheville voters may be confused about whether they are now in the 10th or 11th congressional district. The purple is the 11th District; the blue is the 10th. Clinton Avenue (upper right) is less than 1/2 mile, but the congressional district changes on each side of the road. Click to view full-size image.

In fact, the jagged congressional district boundary slices a portion of Clinton Avenue in half before going left on Sulpher Springs Road for one block, then south on Delaware Avenue for another block, then west on Winnifred Street – well, you get the picture.

The route of a wayward tourist? Maybe. But a congressional district boundary?

Rhodes’s voting precinct, 15.1, is also divided. The precinct has 2,161 registered voters as of Dec. 30, 2011: 1,128 Democrats, 316 Republicans and 711 unaffiliated.

To find your district, go to this N.C. State Board of Election online map and enter your voter registration information.

What seems to add to the confusion is that the precinct’s voting place, Vance Elementary School, is one of 80 separate voting locations in the county where voters will physically cast a ballot in the May 8 primary in a location that’s not in their district.

But Buncombe County Election Services Director Trena Parker said that split precincts are not uncommon and points out that in every election there are usually divided precincts for a variety of elected offices. All voters are required to provide their address to their precinct’s election officials.

“It’s always been our job to give the correct ballot to the correct voter,” she said.

“The likelihood that you’ll be given the correct ballot is high,” agreed UNC Asheville political science associate professor Dolly Jenkens-Mullen.

“The state’s legislature has been contested, and people have complained very vocally,” she said, adding that congressional elections across North Carolina will be watched closely.

Knowing the district is one thing. Knowing the candidates is another.

However, the names on the ballot may not necessarily be the ones you’re expecting.

“Our campaign has encountered a number of voters who are confused about which congressional district they live in,” said Bruce Mulkey, Patsy Keever’s campaign communications director.

“Grassroots education efforts at house parties, Democratic Party functions and other events are the primary ways we’re helping to resolve the confusion,” he said. “Plus we’re using our e-mail newsletter and our website to help voters gain an understanding of the recent changes.”

Brent Laurenz, the director of outreach at the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, in Raleigh, suggests voters check their status before going to the polls.

“Our primary concern, from the voter perspective, is that voters may research candidates in the wrong districts,” he said. “If their ballot is different than what they expect on the day of an election, a voter may make an uninformed decision or go home and not vote.”

His organization along with UNC TV, produces the 2012 North Carolina Voter Guide, which includes guides for each North Carolina county.

Among the 17 westernmost counties, Buncombe County and McDowell County have current guides, and each includes county-specific information, including candidates for each race and each district. Other counties are forthcoming.

But he said that local board of elections has the primary responsibility of educating voters and making sure they get the proper ballot.

The Buncombe County Board of Elections plans to send out mailers to registered voters before “one-stop” voting begins on Thursday, April 19. The mailer will include a map of the new 10th and 11th districts as well as information about changes in certain elections, such as for county commission.

The office has also received numerous requests from individuals, campaigns and political parties to produce maps to clarify boundaries.

“We’re hoping people will pay attention,” Parker said. “When that mailing hits, we expect we’ll be swinging phones left and right. But that’s a good thing. It’s part of our job to make sure everyone knows where to go to vote.”

Since department budgets were completed in June, before the redistricting, Parker said she anticipates requesting an additional $38,000 from Buncombe County to cover the unexpected costs of the mailing.

The Board of Elections also created posters with “quick response codes” so voters can get vital election information by scanning the codes with a handheld device.

The board is also expanding the number of one-stop voting sites from eight to 11.

“We expect voters to take more time and have more questions,” Parker said. “We’ll have a full force of staff so service won’t suffer.”

But with a lawsuit challenging the new districts still in court, change may come again.

The 2012 Voting Guide for Buncombe County residents, printed in January 2012, warns voters that law changes made by the state legislative short sessions on April 23 and May 16 may make their guide obsolete.

There is still a possibility that lines can be redrawn once again, as they were in the 2000 redistricting cycle, in which boundaries were successfully challenged in state court.

Several lawsuits disputed the 2010 redistricting efforts. And while the U.S. Justice Department has preapproved the maps in accordance with the Voters Rights Act, a three-judge panel of North Carolina Superior Court justices in February ruled that the combined statewide redistricting lawsuit could go forward.

The judges’ denied the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed on behalf of the North Carolina NAACP, Democracy NC, the League of Women Voters, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and 44 individual voters. The judges also refused to dismiss the redistricting lawsuit brought by Democratic officials and voters.

Although the judges’ dismissed some of the plaintiffs’ claims, the case will proceed on the majority of the claims, which include allegations that N.C. House, N.C. Senate and congressional plans draw racially gerrymandered districts, divide too many counties and split an excessive number of precincts, including the 10th Congressional District.

Laurenz, of the Center for North Carolina Voter Education, said he believes the possibility of redrawing lines in this cycle is remote.

“The judicial panel will hear arguments in the summer, and it will be fall until a decision (is made),” Laurenz said. “After 2000, we saw that a lot is possible, so we can’t predict what will happen. Nobody can say that with 100 percent certainty.”

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About the Author

Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

One Comment on "Voters confused about new N.C. congressional voting districts"

  1. Bill April 20, 2012 at 9:57 am ·

    The people at the precint level in Asheville need to be educated as to the voting rules. I know one person in east Asheville that has to have her husband go in the voting booth with her because she is afraid she will mark the person on the ballot her husband doesn’t want her voting for. So in effect that husband gets 2 votes because the wife is too ignorant to vote on her own. If I understand correct there is to be just one person in a voting booth when a person is voting.

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