11/25/09 — Director offers look ahead to 2010 vote

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Director offers look ahead to 2010 vote

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 25, 2009 1:46 PM

Although his opinion might be considered a bit biased, state Board of Elections Executive Director Gary Bartlett is confident that North Carolina's election system is among the most efficient.

"I think we've got one of the best systems in the United States and some of the best processes in the United States," Bartlett said, speaking to the Golden K Kiwanis club Tuesday morning. "And the purpose is to ensure that whoever receives the most eligible votes wins, and sometimes you have to go the extra step, and we have that extra step available."

In touting the state board's reputation, Bartlett, who is from Goldsboro, explained to the club all the safeguards -- all the "due diligence" processes -- in place to make sure ballots are counted fairly and accurately. Among those are the ability of people to challenge others' eligibility to vote, driver's license and Social Security number checks, mail verification letters, monthly list maintenance, provisional ballot opportunities, machine and hand-eye recounts and finally election protest opportunities.

And with all that in place, Bartlett said, "Voting is not always easy," but it is done right.

It's also important, he said.

Noting that the 2008 presidential election was a "record-breaking" year in terms of voter registrations and voter turnout, Bartlett also pointed to November's municipal elections.

Of the 1,051 offices being sought, 90 of those races ended either in a tie or with a margin of victory of less than 16 votes. Another 45 contests were won by two votes or less, and in another 38, write-in candidates won.

"Usually the best stories come out of municipal elections," Bartlett said.

However, he is not expecting the same out of the upcoming 2010 elections.

He explained that turnout in mid-term elections is usually small, and that he is not expecting 2010 to be any different.

"I think it's going to be similar to other mid-term elections. I think 2008 wore everyone out," Bartlett said. "I think it will be a contentious election, but I think it will be within the historical norm (in terms of turnout)."

He also said he would be surprised if there is the type of sweeping changes made to Congress as there were in 1994 with the Contract with America -- a hope expressed by several Republican candidates lately. He explained that 1994 was an unusual election that only comes around every 12 years when the only races leading the ballot are for the U.S. House and the state Supreme Court, leading to an extremely small turnout.

"Usually when you have a small turnout like that, unusual things happen," he said.

He also noted that 2010 is likely to be the last major election with the current districts as new census numbers will be taken during the upcoming year.

Currently, there are slightly more than 6 million registered voters in North Carolina -- up from about 3.1 million when Bartlett began working for the state in 1993. Of those, about 45 percent are Democrat, 32 percent are Republican and 23 percent are unaffiliated (a total of 6,000 are registered Libertarian). Dividing those voters and the rest of the population up will fall to state legislators in 2011, and Bartlett hopes the process can be completed in time for the 2012 primaries without litigation -- ideally at least 90 days prior.

He explained that among the factors that will have to be considered will be the state's population shifts, the need to maintain minority districts and the need to maintain whole counties wherever possible.

But, he said, when it comes to what the districts might actually look like -- "It's anybody's guess, regardless of which party is in power."

And, he added, regardless of which party is in power, he believes that Raleigh and elected offices across the state are becoming more and more open thanks to several laws recently enacted involving campaign finance and ethics -- "among the most stringent in the country."

He explained that in 2006, sweeping changes were made as to how candidates are allowed to use campaign contributions and how those must be reported.

He also said that many of the problems that have been investigated and continue to be investigated in terms of potential political corruption stem from things discovered prior to 2006.

"People need to realize that the majority of the things we're investigating are in the past, not in the present," Bartlett said. "I can see a definite change in the trend. I think it's a healthy good."

And while he acknowledges that some of the new requirements -- some of which he admits come with complex forms that he says he would like to offer candidates more help with -- might have a "dampening and chilling effect" on people interested in serving, he also says that he doesn't "quite buy that."

"When you see how a candidate handles his committee and makes the reports, you get an insight into how he handles his affairs. To me, the public needs to see that so they can make a decision, 'Is this somebody I want to govern?' I think it's a small price to pay."