Voting Gears Up in North Carolina

vote-hereIn early August, the Supreme Court refused to overturn the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that threw out most of the 2013 NC Voter ID law.

As a result of the ruling, the 17-day early voting period has been restored; voter ID is not required at the polls; people will be able to register and vote at an early-voting site on the same day; provisional votes will be counted if a voter mistakenly goes to the wrong precinct on Election Day (as long as it’s in the right county); and 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to pre-register to vote, meaning that a 17-year-old who will turn 18 by Election Day will be able to vote this year.

However, each of North Carolina’s 100 county Boards of Elections has had to determine how to restructure this fall’s voting procedures for its residents. And because state law says that election boards are controlled by the party that controls the governorship, all county boards are comprised of two Republicans, one of whom is the chair, and one Democrat. If a county cannot agree on procedures, the state Board of Elections—also controlled by Republicans—will step in.

20 Early Voting Sites in Buncombe

Buncombe County’s board met August 11 to present to the public the proposals developed by Elections Director Trena Parker and her staff. What they offered is good news for local voters.

First of all, there will be 16 early voting sites throughout the county during the first week of early voting, Thursday – Wednesday, Oct. 20 – 26 (except Sunday, Oct. 23). That is more than in any other year except 2018, when there were 18 sites. Each day the sites will be open from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Then, for the second week of early voting (Thursday, Oct. 27 – Friday, Nov. 4) an additional four sites will be opened, in Candler, North Asheville, Oakley, and at A-B Tech. Sites are open from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. all days except the final early voting day, Saturday, Nov. 5, when hours will be 8 a.m. – 1 p.m.

And, perhaps most important to African American voters who have utilized “Souls to the Polls” on a Sunday before election day, eight Buncombe County libraries will be open for voting on Sunday, Oct. 30 from 1 – 6 p.m. They are the libraries in downtown Asheville (Pack Library), Black Mountain, Enka-Candler, Fairview, Leicester, North Asheville, South Buncombe, and West Asheville.

There is no Sunday voting in Buncombe County on Oct. 23 or Nov. 6.

Asked why the full range of sites was not available for both weeks, Parker explained that when the Board contracted with schools, churches, and community centers, they expected only ten days of use (under existing law). When the period was expanded by the court ruling, several venues—one church, one school, and two community centers—had already scheduled other events during that period, making them unavailable. Similarly, the only day when both staff and space were available for Souls to the Polls was Oct. 30, nine days before the Nov. 8 election.

Other counties face hurdles

Buncombe residents have reason to be pleased with the expanded voting opportunities. A number of counties, at the behest of state Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse, have done their best to limit early voting hours and the number, locations, and accessibility of polling places during early voting days.

Woodhouse wrote in an email to Boards of Elections across the state that “Our Republican Board members should feel empowered to make legal changes to early voting plans that are supported by Republicans. Republicans can and should make party line changes to early voting.”

He specifically suggested that the Republican majorities on county boards should limit early voting hours overall. Such a change would make it more crowded and difficult for people to register and vote on the same day, an opportunity the Court of Appeals decision restored.

“Same-day registration is only available during early voting,” he wrote, and, echoing a common Republican talking point, he added, “We are under no obligation to offer more opportunities for voter fraud.” There has been virtually no evidence of voter fraud by people impersonating someone else among the hundreds of millions of votes cast in the state over the past decade.

Sunday voting not statewide

Counties aren’t required to open early voting sites on Sundays, and Woodhouse also lobbied against doing so. In his email he wrote, “Many of our [GOP] folks are angry and are opposed to Sunday voting. Six days of voting in one week is enough. Period.”

A number of local boards followed his suggestion, though in Wake County—home of Raleigh, the state capital—a proposal by Republican member Eddie Woodhouse, Dallas Woodhouse’s cousin, to eliminate Sunday voting hours was voted down. That proposal would also have eliminated the early voting site at NC State—his cousin also urged in his email to close campus sites, where students tend to vote Democratic—but that, too, will remain open this year.

State steps in

Because 33 of the state’s 100 counties were unable to reach accord on early voting plans, the state Board of Elections reviewed competing plans from Democratic and Republican members of those local boards and revised them to comply with the court ruling. While the state board didn’t force all counties to add or expand Sunday voting, it did restore it to counties that had had it in 2012, and it also changed some county plans to make early voting more accessible overall.

Hoke, Craven, and Richmond counties, which had had two days of Sunday voting in 2012, each had one Sunday restored.

For Wake County, which houses more than 10% of the entire state’s 6.7 million voters, only a single downtown site was chosen for the added seven days of early voting. One Republican member of the state board joined its two Democrats in rejecting that plan by adding eight more sites spread across the county for that first week and keeping one Sunday voting day.

The same bipartisan majority added four sites to majority-black Northampton County, where the Republican majority had limited first-week voting to a single location.

Mecklenburg could still face problems

In Mecklenburg County, home to the second-highest number of registered voters in the state, the local board had limited early voting during the first week to six sites. Carol Hill Williams, the lone Democratic member, had asked for 22, the number offered during the original 10-day early voting period; but that request was rejected, with the board’s Republican chairwoman, Mary Potter Summa, asserting, “I’m not a fan of early voting.”

Elizabeth McDowell, the other Republican on the Mecklenburg board, raised fears of “voter harassment” at early voting sites, claiming, without any evidence, that voters will be followed into the polling booths “by too enthusiastic campaign officials” telling them how to vote. State law prohibits campaigning inside polling places and within 50 (in certain circumstances, 25) feet of the building entrance.

The Mecklenburg board also cut the overall number of early voting hours by 238 compared to the 2012 election, even though, at its public hearing in Charlotte, a strong majority of speakers had called for increasing them.

When the state Board of Elections reviewed the Mecklenburg plan, it added four more early voting sites in the areas around Charlotte, for a total of 10, but did not restore the total number of hours for voting. Though he suppported the compromise plan, Democratic state board member Joshua Malcolm said, “I think this is going to be the poster child of what not to do.”

“Deplorable” partisanship

Democracy North Carolina, one of the public advocacy groups that opposed the voter ID law from its inception, has been lobbying county boards to offer more early voting hours. He noted that Woodhouse is involved in appointing the Republican Party’s members to county boards of election, and that his attempt to tell them what to do is “disturbing and deplorable.”

The partisan nature of the law has been clear since it was voted on by the legislature in 2013. It was brought to the floor of the House just days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that Section 4 of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, which forced many states and jurisdictions to apply for preclearance before making any election law changes, was “no longer needed.” State lawmakers—all Republicans—immediately began researching the voting habits of black citizens in North Carolina and then, according to the Fourth Circuit Court, “targeted with almost surgical precision” their voting patterns, while leaving voting opportunities like absentee ballots, used mostly by whites, untouched.

The bill under which the law was filed grew from 12 pages of minor changes to 57 pages that massively diminished opportunities to register and vote by citizens most likely to vote for Democrats: African Americans, college students and other young people, and seniors. When the revised bill came to the floor, it passed both legislative houses with almost no debate or public hearings in just 12 hours, and was signed by Governor Pat McCrory the same night.

The August ruling by the Supreme Court was 4-4, which meant it upheld the unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals. As a result, the 2016 election might be a narrow window of opportunity for African Americans and other Democratic voters to ensure that their candidates are elected this fall, at every level of the ballot: for the presidency and U.S. House and Senate; state offices—Governor, Attorney General, Insurance Commissioner, et. al.—and local. [See “That’s the Ticket!” by Nelda Holder]

For more information about early voting, or to check on your registration status and Election Day precinct location, contact the Buncombe County Board of Elections at buncombecounty.org/vote or call (828) 250-4200. The Elections office is located at 77 McDowell Street, at the corner of Choctaw Street.

 

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