Early voting starts across North Carolina on Thursday, and nowhere will voters have more opportunities to take advantage of it than in Mecklenburg County.
County election officials have expanded the number of early voting sites beyond what is required by the state’s new voting law. No county in the state will have as many hours in which to cast an early ballot.
“Voters have shown in the past that they appreciate early voting,” said Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson. “And we’ve got some really good races here.”
Mecklenburg will offer more than six times as many early voting hours as it did in the 2010 primary. But under the new law, those hours will come over fewer days.
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Cabarrus, Gaston, Iredell and Union counties also have expanded the number of early voting hours beyond what’s required, according to the state Board of Elections.
At the same time, 38 mostly rural counties have asked for and received permission to reduce the number of early voting hours.
This primary is the first statewide election since a new voting law was passed in 2013.
Among other changes taking effect this year: People will no longer be able to register and vote the same day or vote outside their own precinct on Election Day. Voters will be asked for a photo ID but won’t be required to show one to vote. ID will be required starting in 2016.
When it was passed, the voting bill was criticized for shrinking the window for early voting from 17 days to 10. But counties still have to offer at least the same number of cumulative hours for early voting as they did in 2010 or 2012.
In this year’s midterm election, for example, counties must have at least as many early voting hours available as in the last comparable election in 2010.
Critics accused Republicans of reducing early voting, but Republicans defended the law.
“We didn’t shorten early voting; we compacted the calendar,” Gov. Pat McCrory said.
In fact, 38 counties have shortened their hours for early voting. By law, waivers were granted to those counties only after unanimous, bipartisan votes by the county and state boards of elections.
But Mecklenburg and other counties went the other way and increased their hours.
“We have more and more people wanting to early vote, and we felt there was a need for it,” said Mary Summa, chair of the county elections board.
In the 2010 primary, budget constraints limited Mecklenburg to just one early voting site, at the uptown Hal Marshall Annex. This year it will have 12 more, from Cornelius in the north to Steele Creek in the south.
From 121 total early voting hours in 2010, the county will jump to 788, far more than any place in the state.
The state elections board said Gaston County is adding 41 hours; Iredell County, 89. Cabarrus and Union counties are adding a half-hour. Union County will have fewer days but longer total hours this primary, said county Elections Director John Whitley.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP and a leading critic of the voting law, applauded the decision to expand hours.
“We always believed that even if the state passes suppressive laws, there will always be people, regardless of party, who understand we need more access, not less,” he said. “Our position is we should have open, unfettered access to the polls. … Wherever we see that, we’ll applaud it.”
Barber said access to polls shouldn’t depend on which county a voter lives in.
State Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, sponsored the amendment that requires the same number of hours as 2010 or 2012. He said that although statewide uniformity may be something to study, different counties have different needs.
“While I do think we need to have minimums and floors” in the number of hours, he said, “… we do have to appreciate that we have great diversity among our counties in geography and population.” Staff writers Adam Bell, Joe Marusak and Joe DePriest contributed.