It’s convenient, it saves time, and it feels good to get it out of the way. Early voting, very popular this year, has many benefits for voters. One of the most important is that it has flushed out problems in advance of Election Day, giving poll workers and political groups extra time to solve them. Most problems with early voting have been mechanical: Unprecedented voter turnout has early voting sites swamped with ballots to process. County board of election offices are still swimming in registration forms. And some voters fail to realize that checking the box for “straight party ticket” does not include a vote for president, state judges or state constitutional amendments. More ominous problems have also come to light, spurring outrage that has led to another high turnout: election protection volunteers.

Latino advocates jumped into action after Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson accused Hispanic residents of perpetrating voter fraud using false identification. His cause for concern? A high number of voter registration cards turned in by self-identified Hispanics. Johnson sent a list of 125 Hispanic voters’ names to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, and only 38 matched ICE records. Ignoring the fact that native Latinos’ names do not appear in immigration or customs records, the sheriff announced on Oct. 4 that he would go door to door to investigate.

Latino advocacy groups across the state saw red, calling the sheriff’s actions a clear-cut case of voter intimidation based on race. “We’re very offended by this,” says Andrea Bazan-Manson, executive director of El Pueblo in Raleigh. “We deal with anti-immigrant stuff all the time. But this was just so blatant.” The story quickly generated negative attention in the national media. Bazan-Manson says pressure from state and national Latino organizations caused the sheriff to back down on his door-to-door campaign.

Where did all this hullabaloo start? At an anti-immigration think tank in Washington. The Federation for American Immigration Reform sent out a press release in mid-September calling on North Carolina’s Board of Election to conduct county-by-county reviews of the voter rolls. FAIR claims that 400,000 North Carolina driver’s licenses were issued without Social Security numbers and were registered at the Department of Motor Vehicles without their eligibility being verified.

Bazan-Manson says El Pueblo has no intention of encouraging voter fraud.

Public response has bolstered El Pueblo’s get-out-the-vote efforts. The group has added Alamance voters to their phone bank, worked with Spanish-language media on public service announcements to inform voters of their rights, and collaborated with the Institute for Southern Studies on a statewide election protection campaign. “They’re training poll monitors, so we are recruiting a lot of volunteers for them,” Bazan-Manson says. Some will travel to Chatham County to help translate the ballot for Spanish-speaking voters. “People heard about this incident and were so outraged they wanted to do something.”

Tara Purohit, who runs the Southern Voting Rights Project at the Institute for Southern Studies, says volunteer turnout for the election protection campaign has exceeded her expectations. About 300 volunteers have been trained across the state so far, with 125 coming from the Triangle.

Training sessions last between 90 minutes and two hours. “We talk about basic procedure, being nonpartisan at the poll, how to approach voters and how to answer questions they have.” A national hotline number is available to any voter who encounters problems. Volunteers have their own direct line to attorneys here in North Carolina.

Efforts are targeted at pockets of the state with high minority populations, historically low-turnout precincts or ones with many new voters. Hillside High School in Durham, for instance, is a new polling place that currently serves as one of four early voting sites in the county. On Oct. 15, 1,000 students from N.C. Central University marched to Hillside to cast early ballots but were turned away because the site could only process 100 ballots per hour. “They got there and all these students ended up leaving and not getting to vote because the precinct could not handle that many voters,” Purohit says.

Wake County has increased its early voting sites from four in 2000 to 13 in 2004. As the Pullen Park Arts Center location opened at 11 a.m. last Saturday, the parking lot was already lined with people waiting to cast their votes. One of them was Linda Watson, executive director of the Wake County Democratic Party. “We’re urging people to vote early and consider Nov. 2 the last day possible to vote,” she says. “If each of us can take a couple of extra people to the polls, we’re going to win this thing.”

Wake polling places were swamped over the weekend. Lorrin Freeman, chair of the Wake County Democratic Party, says there were long lines Saturday at Mary Phillips High School in East Raleigh and at sites in Apex and Cary. “These places are just not adequately staffed to handle the kind of turnout we’ve been getting,” Freeman says. The Wake BOE called in extra help on Saturday. Freeman says because of what’s happened in Florida, “people are nervous about the possibility of voting fraud. Everybody’s talking about it. In response to that, we are doing everything we can to avert problems.” The Wake Dems have 50 lawyers on call and will be sending more poll watchers than ever before to Wake precincts Tuesday.

Election rules themselves are tripping up some voters. Despite posted warnings about the “straight party ticket” exceptions, some voters are handing in ballots without picking the president. And last week, the Wake BOE brought to the attention of the Democratic and Republican parties the fact that about 30-40 absentee ballots already received did not meet the legal requirements for one reason or another. Most often, voters did not fulfill the requirement of having two witnesses sign their absentee ballots–a requirement few voters know about. The board does not notify the absentee voter that his or her vote was rejected. But it does tell the parties, and the Democrats are contacting voters in their party to let them know their vote wasn’t counted and that they can still show up either at an early-voting site or on Election Day. x

–Sylvia Pfeiffenberger, Bob Geary, Blair Goldstein and Fiona Morgan

(For more voter information, see the Indy voting guide on page 13. If you have a problem voting, call 1-866-OURVOTE.)