Early-voting pledge not being kept

March 19, 2014

Shortly after the General Assembly reduced the number of early voting days from 17 to 10 as part of sweeping voting changes enacted last session, Gov. Pat McCrory took to the airwaves to defend the move.

“We didn’t shorten early voting,” the governor said in a clip that went viral. “We compacted the calendar, but we’re going to have the same hours in which polls are open in early voting and we’re going to have more polls available.”

As it’s turning out, though, with just a little more than a month remaining before early voting begins for the May primaries, compacting the calendar is not that simple a task.

Under the new law, counties must offer the same number of hours provided during similar elections in 2010 or 2012, unless all local and state board members approve fewer hours.

Trying to fit the same number of hours into seven fewer days and finding the sites and staff needed to do that has become a problem for many counties — so much so that at least 40 have asked the state board of elections to allow them to do exactly what the governor said would not happen — reduce the number of early voting hours.

“These hours reduction requests are passed by a unanimous county board of elections, which represents both major political parties,” state board elections specialist George McCue said. “That’s a requirement for those requests to be made in the first place.”

Many of the counties requesting reductions in hours are rural, he added, and some had unnecessarily expanded early voting in prior years not knowing that those hours would become benchmarks for hours required in future elections.

In Warren County, for example, the board of elections asked to cut its early voting hours in half and keep only one of two sites open. Based upon numbers from the 2010 primary elections, the county would have been required to hold 205 hours of early voting at two sites over 10 days. With the approval of the state board, it will now offer 101 early voting hours at one site.

Requests for a reduction of early voting hours from across the state show county boards of elections juggling assessments of low voter turnout in prior years with the obligation to meet demand during a compressed period of time.

Buncombe County, for example, offered 848 early voting hours at a total of eight sites during the 2010 primaries, but an average of only 5.75 voters showed up at those sites each hour.

This year, the county requested and received approval to reduce its early voting hours to 566 hours.

Trena Parker, director of election services there, said that even with the adjustment, the county would still provide Buncombe voters with plenty of opportunities to vote early.

In Vance County, the board of elections initially sought a reduction from 238 hours to 153 hours. Board chairman Kevin Kilgore also attributed that request to low voter turnout during the 2010 primary election.

“In 2010 we had 7,000 people voting in the primary, but only 2,000 voted early — so just under 30 percent,” he said. “We felt that trying to increase hours over 10 days with just the two sites we had would be burdensome for our staff. We did look for a third site, but were not successful.”

The county did try to accommodate working voters, but oddly, Kilgore said, its initial request was rejected by the state board because it included Sunday hours, which some other counties are offering. The county was given no explanation.

Promises from the governor aside, the reduction of early voting hours in some instances may be justified, and preferable, to what’s happening in counties where the boards are playing a numbers game at the expense of meaningful voting opportunities.

“There are two different things going on,” Democracy North Carolina’s Bob Hall said. “There’s the reducing of hours with a unanimous vote, and then there’s the trickery of having the county’s hours add up, but not really providing a good plan.”

Hall pointed out Brunswick County as a good example of a board strongly committed to early voting, by members of both political parties. There, he said, though board members did reduce early voting hours some, they’re still offering hundreds of hours at several sites.

“The whole point of early voting is to provide opportunities for people who have a hardship on a week-day during working hours,” Hall added. “So the emphasis should be on evening hours and weekend hours.”

Apparently, that’s a point some boards of elections are ignoring.

Sharon McCloskey is a courts and law reporter for N.C. Policy Watch.

Sharon McCloskey, Courts and Law Reporter