After Ruling, North Carolina Board Careful On Voting Changes
North Carolina elections officials have fashioned early voting schedules they hope comply with a federal court ruling this summer and ease long lines this fall in the presidential battleground state.
The state's Republican-controlled Board of Elections deliberated for 11 hours through disputed plans for early in-person voting from one-third of North Carolina's 100 counties before approving or amending them Thursday. In most cases, board members weighed competing Democratic and Republican proposals from local election boards approved last month with differing early voting dates, hours and locations.
The struggle stemmed from a decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this summer throwing out several portions of a 2013 ballot access law such as voter ID and limiting early in-person voting to cover 10 days. Now it's back to 17 days and county boards had to present new plans. The judges said Republican legislators had acted with discriminatory intent against black voters in an effort to depress Democratic turnout by passing rules with "almost surgical precision."
State board members Thursday were wary of eliminating Sunday voting in counties that used it in 2012 out of concern attorneys that sued over the 2013 law would go back to court and complain the board wasn't following the spirit of the ruling. The court had emphasized how scaling back early voting days meant removing the opportunity for some Sunday voting popular with black residents and predominantly black churches through "souls to the polls" efforts.
"We have to have a justification or we're going to have a real problem," said state board member James Baker, a Republican, before a 3-2 vote in favor of restoring 38 cumulative hours of Sunday voting at several sites in Cumberland County, home to Fort Bragg. "When it's been in existence for us to cut it out completely, we have to have a good reason for doing that."
A majority of the five-member board voted to retain Sunday voting in Cumberland and four other counties that previously used it. But the same members usually were unwilling to initiate Sunday voting where none existed before. Republican board members expressed sympathy with local officials who said they needed Sundays off during the taxing election season.
"The staff, the candidates and the volunteers for the candidates need a break," said Toni Reece, the Rockingham County board chairwoman. "There are people who enjoy their Sundays with their church and their families."
A 3-2 majority on the state board agreed to more early voting hours in Northampton County, a majority-black county where the two Republicans on the local board had wanted to open just one site. Now there will be four.
One of the most notable exchanges during the marathon session surrounded the Watauga County Board of Elections. At issue is the location of the on-campus voting site at Appalachian State University.
In one of the few party-line votes of the day, the state board voted to allow a plan that would put the site at Legends, an entertainment venue, instead of the ASU student union. But that plan is contingent on election officials getting permission from the venue in the next few days. If they don't, the student union becomes the official site.
The board also increased the number of cumulative hours of early voting in urban counties such as Wake, surrounding Raleigh, and Mecklenburg, which includes Charlotte.
But some Democrats worried it wasn't enough to handle the massive amounts of early voters in a state that also has a closely fought governor's race and other statewide elections this November. Black voters disproportionally use early voting. Any early voting adjustment could tweak turnout.
For Mecklenburg County, the board agreed to increase the number of early voting sites from six to 10. But Democrats on the board argued all 22 sites were needed for the entire period in the state's largest county.
"I think this is going to be the poster child for what not to do," Joshua Malcolm, a Democratic state board member, said of the 10-site plan.
Chris Brook, an attorney with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he and other attorneys would have to wade through Thursday's outcomes before deciding whether to seek remedial help from the federal courts.
"We're going to look at whether North Carolina voters who rely on early voting are being served by these plans," Brook said in an interview, adding that while they were improvements, there are "also a lot of instances where there's not been those sorts of positive steps."
State Board Chairman Grant Whitney, a Republican, declined to speak with reporters Thursday night after the meeting. Although concerned about a couple of Sunday voting decisions, Malcolm said by and large the board did "its very best to interpret and make a good faith effort to comply with the law and especially in this case the 4th Circuit."