Long voting lines may be coming, courtesy of the GOP

The Observer editorial board

Sisters Marie McCombs (left) and Mary Anne Casey voted early in the March primary this year.
Sisters Marie McCombs (left) and Mary Anne Casey voted early in the March primary this year. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Here’s a twist: A federal court ruling aimed at making voting fairer and easier could do exactly the opposite. The decision could result in North Carolina voters losing a huge chunk of their early voting time – leading to hours-long lines on Election Day.

A three-judge panel for the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals threw out North Carolina’s voter ID bill last month, saying legislators targeted black voters with “almost surgical precision.” That was heartening news, given how the court showed that legislators pursued the very policies that would specifically target black voter turnout.

The court, though, threw out almost the entire law, including the provisions governing early voting. The law had required that counties provide the same number of early-voting hours as they had in 2012.

Counties have until Aug. 19 to submit a new early voting plan to the state Board of Elections. The state gives them options. One would provide early voting only at the county elections office, not at sites scattered across the county. And the polls could be open only during weekday working hours and a half-day on the last Saturday before the election.

In Mecklenburg County, that would cut almost 2,600 early voting hours from the county’s 2,742 hours in the last presidential election. And that could mean Election Day migraines.

That’s not politics, just poor planning, says Mecklenburg elections director Michael Dickerson.

“I don’t (do early voting) for Democrats or Republicans or unaffiliateds, but for voters to have ample time to vote,” he told the editorial board Monday. “I can handle 150,000 to 200,000 people showing up on Election Day. I don’t know if our system can handle 500,000 people showing up on Election Day.”

In addition to reducing hours, some county boards might seek to make other changes with political motives, like cutting certain sites in minority communities and eliminating Sunday voting, an option that African-Americans took more advantage of in 2012. With a Republican in the governor’s office, all 100 county boards are 2-1 Republican majorities by state law.

In Guilford County, the board of elections considered eliminating nearly half of its early-voting sites, including at least three that attract minorities and young people. The board backed down from that plan Monday after a community outcry.

The Mecklenburg County Board of Elections is expected to meet next Monday to approve its plan. With the state law invalidated, the board should look for ways to expand early voting, not contract it. And voters should attend the meeting to make sure they do.

The state Board of Elections sent a memo to counties last week laying out the options and saying: “We strongly encourage county boards of elections to be mindful of expected turnout and historical use of one-stop early voting…” The state board goes on to “recommend that you make every effort to provide ample voting opportunities through” offering as many sites and hours as possible.

Of course there are politics at play on both sides, but voting is a constitutional right that we should be making easier, not harder. Besides, no one of any party wants to stand in an hours-long line to vote.