The details behind early voting cuts

The Observer editorial board

Citizens pack the Mecklenburg Board of Elections office on Monday afternoon.
Citizens pack the Mecklenburg Board of Elections office on Monday afternoon. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

When it comes to stymieing voting, Mecklenburg County’s Board of Elections has moves even the experts – N.C. legislators – didn’t use.

The board cut early voting hours for the November election on Monday night – something legislators didn’t do even as they passed one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country in 2013.

A federal appeals court struck that law down last month, including its limited early voting window. Mecklenburg’s reaction? Chop early voting hours by 9 percent compared with 2012 and with what had been planned for 2016.

We suppose we should be thankful that the board – meaning Republicans Mary Potter Summa and Elizabeth McDowell, who outvoted Democrat Carol Hill Williams – didn’t make bigger cuts. They also didn’t approve additional changes that appear to blatantly target minorities and Democrats, as other counties have considered.

They did whack 238 hours, though. They did so primarily by opening only six sites in the first week of early voting, down from the 22 used in 2012.

To the board’s credit, those six sites are scattered around the county. They are at Beatties Ford, the Hal Marshall building uptown, Ballantyne, Hickory Grove, Cornelius and the university area.

Also to the board’s credit, the sites will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. That’s three hours more per weekday and two hours more each weekend day, an approach that should make it easier for voters who might have trouble voting during the workday. It was also notable that the board did not target Sunday voting, which traditionally has been used proportionately more by African-American voters.

Even so, nothing justifies cutting voting hours in response to a court decision that worried about making voting more difficult. North Carolina voters face an extremely long ballot, and three high-profile races – for president, governor and U.S. senator – are expected to bump up turnout.

Factor in the higher number of registered voters compared with four years ago and the disappearance of straight-ticket voting, and it only made sense to at least keep early voting hours the same if not expand them. The money had already been budgeted to cover more hours than this plan does.

Mecklenburg’s proposal now goes to the state Board of Elections for approval. Williams, the Democrat on the county board, should push for adding three or four more sites to the six planned for the first week. That would boost the hours back to about what they were in 2012.

The Mecklenburg board’s changes could have been far worse. But they contradict the spirit of the court’s ruling, and common sense.

Concerned citizens came to the Mecklenburg Board of Elections office on Monday evening to voice their opinions on early voting.