Buncombe voters set record-breaking midterm primary turnout despite dearth of poll workers

·5 min read

ASHEVILLE - Buncombe voters showed up in record-setting midterm primary numbers May 17, an overall smooth and successful day despite a poll worker deficit that, according to officials, required them to dip into reserves.

A total 53,707 people voted in Buncombe's 2022 midterm primary, an increase of more than 20,000 from the 30,264 or 15.82% who voted in the 2018 midterm primaries, according to local turnout statistics and North Carolina State Board of Elections results.

Buncombe County primary election day coverage:  

More than 27,000 voted early, according to data posted on Buncombe Election Services website, more than 2,500 of which were mail-in ballots.

"Yesterday went really smoothly," said Buncombe County Director of Elections Corinne Duncan. "I am really proud of that because we also had really high turnout. This was record-breaking turnout for a midterm."

Buncombe's registered voter turnout was 26.37%, one of the higher turnouts for large-population counties in North Carolina. The state had an estimated 20% voter turnout, according to early data.

The results are still unofficial and will be certified in the coming weeks.

Voters check in at the West Asheville Community Center polling place on May 17, 2022.
Voters check in at the West Asheville Community Center polling place on May 17, 2022.

All the sites opened on time and there weren't very many lines, Duncan said. Though a few last-minute mail-in and overseas military ballots and a few others have yet to be counted, Duncan said she doesn't expect the final number of primary votes to exceed 54,000.

Two races are eligible for recounts: District 40 district attorney race and the District 115 N.C. House of Representatives race.

According to state election laws, a candidate is eligible to call for a recount if the difference in votes is less than 1% of the total votes cast, Duncan said. Both of those races qualify and would move forward with a recount if candidates make the request.

What happened to all the poll workers?

Despite the overall "smoothness" May 17, Buncombe's Election Services is dealing with a problem, according to Duncan — having enough poll workers.

Buncombe Election Services coordinates with the Democratic and Republican parties to get poll workers — judges appointed by each party, a chief judge and assistants, for a total of about four to six workers at each location — at each of its 80 precinct locations.

Pay is a flat rate of $260 for chief judge, $210 for party judge and $175 for assistants, according to Buncombe's website.

But that was easier said than done in 2022.

"Trying to have enough poll workers and satisfy the requirements for the law on election day is difficult," Duncan said.

Buncombe County Director of Elections Corinne Duncan speaks at a primary election day press conference on May 17, 2022.
Buncombe County Director of Elections Corinne Duncan speaks at a primary election day press conference on May 17, 2022.

Judges at precinct locations are appointed by the Board of Elections, but their names are submitted by the parties. "Both parities in Buncombe County this year wanted to take a more active role, which we thought was great because it makes us have more options, we thought."

But just before election day, Duncan said there was "an enormous amount of dropouts. And trying to keep up with that was very difficult. We ended up with less workers out there than we wanted."

Buncombe had to dip into its reserve of about 40 backup poll workers this year and used every one of them, Duncan said.

"(Poll workers) were dropping out the day before election day," she said. "It's always a problem, but it seemed bigger this time."

That leaves Election Services and the parties will a tall order between now and the Nov. 8 general election: They have to figure out a way to stop losing poll workers.

Duncan said she doesn't know exactly why so many people drop out and wants to create initiatives in her department to find out. "We'll start by gathering that data and trying to understand the rate of dropout and see if it was more in one party or another."

But to do that, she needs a bigger staff and has requested new positions of the 2023 fiscal year budget which is still working its way through County Commission approval.

The Unitarian Universalist Church served as the polling place on May 17, 2022.
The Unitarian Universalist Church served as the polling place on May 17, 2022.

Duncan said Elections Services and the Board of Elections will have to work with the party chairs — Democrat Jeff Rose and Republican Glenda Weinert — to figure out exactly what happened this year.

"Because the parties wanted to be more involved this time we stepped back a little bit," Duncan said. "I think maybe we needed to keep a bigger (involvement)."

Rose, though he deferred to Duncan on why exactly so many poll workers dropped out, said part of the issue may have something to do with scheduling or age.

"Finding people who are able to work is a challenge we're taking seriously," he said. "I know that the change in the primary date from March to May had a big impact on people. There were some who already had trips planned and things like that."

Poll work, he added, is also something people "typically do when they're retired. When people start doing it in retirement and do it four, five, 10 years, at some point you need to give up that 16-hour day because you can't do it anymore."

So, the Democrats are looking for a "new crop of folks" to get involved, maybe even a younger crowd, Rose said.

"We've organized a new team inside the party where we're trying to focus on Board of Elections tasks year-round," Rose said. "We've had a renewed focus on it since 2020. It's be a very important part of what political parities do on a local level."

Weinert did not immediately respond to messages left with the Buncombe County Republican Party headquarters.

Duncan lauded all Election Services employees, specifically her permanent staff of 8.

"We need to reduce the stress on these people," she said. "These are amazingly dedicated people. ... Our permanent staff ends up being kind of like Seal Team Six: They have to be really highly qualified because they're running seasonal staff that we have to train who also have to be perfect. We're an industry that has to do things fast and perfect with significant consequences if we don't."

Those interested in working in early voting or Election Day polling can learn more at buncombecounty.org/governing/depts/election under the "get involved" tab.

Andrew Jones is Buncombe County government and health care reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter, 828-226-6203 or arjones@citizentimes.com. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Buncombe sets primary turnout record despite major poll worker losses