Voters in 23 North Carolina counties will have fewer opportunities to vote early than they did four years ago under schedules approved by Republican-led election boards.
The decisions came after the N.C. Republican Party encouraged its appointees on the county boards to “make party line changes to early voting” by limiting the number of hours and keeping polling sites closed on Sundays.
While Republicans hold a majority on the local elections board in each of the state’s 100 counties, 70 boards voted to offer more early voting hours than they’d had in the 2012 presidential election, while 23 cut hours from 2012.
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Of the 21 counties that offered Sunday voting in 2012, nine voted to eliminate it, while 12 agreed to keep Sunday hours.
Some of the decisions are awaiting review by the State Board of Elections. In 33 counties, local election boards had split votes, which means their early voting schedules will be determined by the state board when it meets Thursday.
Lenoir County’s board of elections voted to cut hours to the minimum permitted by law – a single site in downtown Kinston open only during weekday business hours and on the Saturday morning before the election. That’s less than a quarter of the 443 early voting hours Lenoir had in 2012.
In a letter to the state board defending the plan, Lenoir County’s two Republican board members said the single site would allow poll workers to “monitor voter fraud more effectively.” They say their plan would cost the county only $7,600, while the Democrat on the board sought more voting hours at a cost of $62,000.
“The Lenoir County Board of Elections site offers ample space to accommodate all voters willing to cast a ballot,” the letter says. “The site is easily accessible, well known, and safe for all voters.”
The Democrat, Courtney Patterson, told the state board in a letter that his GOP counterparts were following the directive from the N.C. Republican Party to reduce early voting.
“One of my fellow board members informed me that the two Republican members of the board had been given an agenda from the North Carolina Republican Party that he felt bound to follow, and he hoped I would not take offense at the position he intended to take to comply with that agenda,” Patterson wrote. He added that the only person who spoke in favor of less early voting during the board’s meeting was John Nix. Nix is chairman of the Lenoir County GOP, and his wife Michele is vice-chairwoman of the NCGOP.
Neither of the Republican board members, Lucinda Minges and Tommy Pharo, returned phone calls Tuesday seeking comment.
Patterson wants the state board to approve his alternative plan, which would offer 828 hours of early voting at six sites, including one site open on Sundays.
“Because we have so many working-class voters in our county, it is critical that we offer some evening and weekend hours to enable those voters to participate in early voting,” he wrote to the state board.
Under the Republican plan, voters in the outlying towns of Pink Hill and La Grange would have to spend 45 minutes driving to downtown Kinston to vote early, he said. Patterson’s plan includes sites in those towns.
Sunday early voting hours have been popular among African-Americans, some of whom organize “souls to the polls” events where church members vote together after Sunday services. But NCGOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse told Republican board members to drop Sundays out of “respect for voters’ religious preferences, protection of our families and allowing the fine election staff a day off.”
Despite that request emailed to board members last month, four counties that didn’t have Sunday voting in 2012 added it for this year.
“There are a number of counties that are working in a bipartisan way to develop good plans,” said Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, which has lobbied heavily for expanded early voting opportunities.
Hall says he’s hopeful that the State Board of Elections will overturn some of the county plans that reduce early voting hours and eliminate Sundays. The state board will review the plans as well as dissenting plans – typically filed by the lone Democrat on a county board – and set a final schedule for early voting, which begins Oct. 20.
“They are certainly able to pick, choose or substitute any of those things that are on the table,” including creating a hybrid of the two proposals, said Josh Lawson, general counsel for the State Board of Elections.
The state board consists of three Republicans and two Democrats, but Lawson said previous rulings on disputed early voting plans didn’t necessarily split along party lines. “This board has proved to find bipartisan agreement where possible,” he said.
Early voting schedules were already set when a federal court ruling threw out the state’s voter ID law in late July. In addition to revoking the state’s requirement for photo identification, the ruling requires counties to offer 17 days of early voting.
The voter ID law had limited early voting to a 10-day period, but counties were required to offer at least the same number of voting hours as they did during the 2012 election. The court ruling eliminated that floor on hours – meaning that counties can legally provide fewer hours and fewer early voting sites than they did in the last presidential election.
Some counties’ Republican board majorities decided not to follow the NCGOP’s advice and approved expanded early voting schedules. Catawba County, for example, increased from 273 early voting hours in 2012 to 715 this year, keeping polling sites on two Sundays.
“As a board, we didn’t consider what (Woodhouse) said,” said board chairman David Hood, who’s a Republican. “Our obligation was to the voters. ... Our decision making is not based on partisan considerations, and that’s been true for the whole 18 years I’ve been on the board.”
Because Catawba and 66 other county boards voted unanimously, their plans are final and won’t need review from the State Board of Elections.
Thursday’s state board meeting might not be the final action for the 33 counties with disputed early voting schedules: Hall said some of the schedules could be challenged in court if the state board upholds plans that limit minority voting by dropping Sunday voting or polling sites in African-American communities.
The reduction of Sunday voting was a major concern of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals when it rejected the voter ID law. Its ruling said the law’s “provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
“The state board has to weigh the reality that the 4th Circuit is looking at what they’re doing,” Hall said.
By the numbers
23 counties proposed cutting hours from 2012
70 counties proposed increasing hours from 2012
9 counties with Sunday voting in 2012 voted to drop it
4 counties that didn’t have Sunday voting in 2012 voted to add Sunday hours
12 counties kept Sunday voting from 2012
75 counties haven’t offered Sunday voting
1,800 written comments received by the State Board of Elections on early voting