Noting the watchful eye of a federal court, the State Board of Elections voted to restore Sunday early voting hours in several counties that had offered the option – popular among African-American voters – in 2012.
The board also voted to add early voting hours in counties where schedules had been cut. And the board added four sites for the first week of early voting in Mecklenburg County. But in party line votes, the board’s Republican majority rejected efforts to add Sunday voting in counties that hadn’t previously offered it.
Some of the decisions put members of the board’s Republican majority at odds with their party’s leaders, who had lobbied extensively for fewer early voting opportunities and the elimination of Sunday voting. The board was charged with settling disputed early voting schedules in 33 counties where the local board vote wasn’t unanimous.
“Almost all the plans before us have added hours, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Rhonda Amoroso, a Republican board member from Wilmington. “Everybody wants an opportunity to vote.”
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For Craven County, where Republican election officials sought to drop Sunday voting, state board member James Baker, a retired judge and Republican from Madison County, brokered a compromise: Sunday voting on just one of the weekends instead of two. Baker proved to be the board’s swing vote on Thursday, occasionally breaking with the board’s two other Republicans to vote with its two Democrats.
“It kind of concerns me that it’s become such a political issue,” Baker said. “One party really wants this and the other party really doesn’t.”
As Baker spoke, N.C. Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse sat on the front row of a packed conference room. Woodhouse had encouraged GOP appointees to county elections boards to “make party line changes to early voting” by limiting the number of hours and keeping polling sites closed on Sundays.
Another GOP leader called for counties to schedule the minimum allowed by law: A single voting site open during weekday business hours and the Saturday before the election. Republicans said the limits would reduce potential for voter fraud.
Elections officials felt the pressure: Randolph County Board of Elections Chairman Bill McAnulty, a Republican, said he “got accused of being a traitor and everything else by the Republican Party” for supporting expanded early voting hours.
“I said I have made a mistake of understanding the public’s wants,” McAnulty said.
In his email, Woodhouse said Republicans are “opposed to Sunday voting for a host of reasons including respect for voter’s religious preferences, protection of our families and allowing the fine election staff a day off.”
In Richmond County, Democratic board member Carlton Hawkins said he heard that argument from his GOP counterparts on the board there. “Both of the Republicans are Southern Baptist preachers – God don’t want you to vote on Sundays,” he said, noting that the preachers often visit restaurants that are open on Sundays.
Baker said he understands concerns about the impact of Sunday hours on poll workers. “I see a great need for there to be some days off for the workers,” he said.
The board rejected requests to add Sunday voting in counties that hadn’t previously offered it, often in split votes with the two Democrats dissenting.
In counties where Democrats sought to add additional early voting sites and hours, the board cited the potential for long lines at the polls in its decision. GOP-backed voting plans were rejected in the state’s two most populous counties, Wake and Mecklenburg, because the board found that the number of polling sites in the first week were inadequate. But the board declined to add sites in Nash County, noting its smaller population.
In Mecklenburg, the Republican election board majority reduced early voting hours from 2012, providing six sites during the first week of the early voting period. The Democrat on the board wanted 22 sites during that week – the same number offered during the rest of the period. The state board instead opted for 10 sites in the first week.
“I don’t see how the majority plan can function for the needs of Mecklenburg County,” Baker said. The state board’s attorney, Josh Lawson, said the GOP plan would be a “risky move” that could run afoul of a federal court ruling on North Carolina’s election law.
Making the case for less early voting, Mecklenburg election board member Liz McDowell said the lack of precinct judges at early voting sites leads to problems such as “voter harassment.” She says voters are “victimized by too enthusiastic campaign officials” who follow them into the polls and tell them how to vote. State law bans campaigning inside polling places.
”Are you serious?” state board member Joshua Malcolm asked McDowell.
Malcolm, a Democrat, said the 10-site plan the state board approved will still lead to problems in Mecklenburg. “I think this is going to be the poster child of what not to do,” he said.
Early voting schedules were already set when a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals 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.
Several of the groups that sued over the voter law have said they might take additional legal action if the state board didn’t restore Sunday voting and expand early voting schedules.
The state board was still debating some counties’ plans after 9 p.m. Thursday, more than 11 hours after the meeting began.