Still planning to vote early? You get another 4 hours

Prompted by local Democratic officials, the N.C. State Board of Elections extended early voting this Saturday by four hours.

The Thursday decision drew criticism from some Republicans who say early voting is favoring Democrats and that such midstream changes manipulate elections.

The Democrat-controlled state board cleared the way for local boards to approve the change at their own emergency meetings Thursday without necessary unanimous votes.

In fact, only a unanimous vote could have stopped the time change for each county, according to the state board's decision.

The move means early voting will end at 5 p.m. Saturday for most counties in the region, the last chance to vote other than Election Day on Tuesday. The Lincoln County Board of Elections, however, voted to not extend hours.

Mecklenburg and Guilford county boards sought the Saturday extension, saying long lines have overwhelmed early voting sites. Lines have been hours long, and some voters have left in frustration.

Based on Wednesday's voting total, four hours could mean 8,000 more voters in Mecklenburg.

In both Mecklenburg and Guilford counties, the lone Republican members of each election board halted plans to extend the hours earlier this week. Unanimous votes are normally required to make time changes. But the two Democrats on each panel sought the extension from the state.

Under state law, Democrats control the 100 county elections boards because the governor is a Democrat.

Mecklenburg County elections board member Michael Kolb, the lone Republican on the three-person board, said Thursday that changing published voting times sets a poor precedent. But he said keeping it to only a time change was better than other suggestions: “Some people wanted to change locations.”

Mecklenburg GOP chairman Lee Teague said the change was unfair to election workers, who are already stressed. But he said the GOP could also take advantage of the extra four hours on Saturday. “There are a lot more Republicans left to vote.”

Mecklenburg Elections Board Chairwoman Georgia Jacquez Lewis, said she and fellow Democratic board member Carol Williams asked the state to override the local vote. Williams said everyone who wants to vote early should have a chance.

“It's open to everybody,” she said of the extended hours.

The extra hours will cost, but the amount isn't clear. The county will try to pass that on to the state, Lewis said.

The state board's decision to alter early voting highlights the remarkable turnout and long lines seen across the surprise swing state since voting began two weeks ago.

Mecklenburg voting, including absentee ballots, could account for half of the votes cast, twice the percentage of next highest tally, from the 2004 presidential race, said county elections director Michael Dickerson. “It's phenomenal.”

Through Wednesday night, more than 1.7 million people – or 30 percent of registered voters – had cast a ballot at early voting sites across the state.

Early voting has been a sensitive subject for the GOP this year.

Registered Democrats are voting early at far higher rates, drawn in part by the party's presidential nominee Barack Obama and his campaign's extensive effort to turn voters out to the polls before Election Day.

Larry Leake, the Democratic chairman of the state elections board, at first proposed allowing counties to make individual decisions. But Charles Winfree, a Republican member, questioned whether county boards controlled by Democrats could be manipulated by those seeking office.

“I'm concerned that some counties will and some counties won't and that will be manipulated by the campaigns – they will hold them open later in Democratic counties and then will close them early in Republican counties.”

Staff writers Joe DePriest and Scott Verner and The Associated Press contributed.
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