Many North Carolina Counties Seek Further Cutbacks on Early Voting

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[Image courtesy of ncsu.edu]

North Carolina’s new election laws – which include new voter ID requirements and significant changes to the state’s expansive early voting system – have generated controversy and litigation as opponents of the new law argue that the state’s action threatens to disenfranchise voters.

But a recent story demonstrates that in some North Carolina counties, the proposed cuts don’t actually go far enough. Charlotte NPR station WFAE has more:

More than a third of North Carolina’s counties are asking for an exemption from part of the sweeping election overhaul the General Assembly passed last year. Those exemptions would allow counties to cut early voting periods beyond what the new law already does.

There are a couple ways to look at the early voting changes that are part of the overhaul. On a calendar, it’s simple: there are seven fewer days of early voting.

But Republicans who back the law have argued that’s not really a cut. Governor Pat McCrory explained how on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks a few months ago.

“The number of hours of early voting is going to be the exact same number of hours,” he said.

That’s another way to look at it: by hours. Counties still have to offer the same total hours of early voting. They just have seven fewer days to work with. And counties get that total number by adding up the hours they had at each polling site.

At least, that’s how the law was written. In reality, four counties will cut days and hours. Many others are asking the state Board of Elections if they can, too.

What might get lost in the fierce partisan debate is the fact these requests are bipartisan and have far more to do with how much early voting is costing some communities compared to the number of voters using it:

Most of the counties asking for exemptions are rural, and McCue said there are a couple things to keep in mind.

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

Also, McCue said some counties simply overdid early voting in the last midterm election, obviously without knowing that state lawmakers would use that election as a benchmark.

Warren County in the northeast part of the state, for example, added an early voting site in 2010. Deborah Formyduval is the county’s director of elections.

“It was a very poor turnout to that site,” she said. “We averaged one voter per hour in that site.”

Formyduval said it’s a waste of county money to do that again. The state Board of Elections agreed.

And Formyduval said even though her county is cutting total hours, early voting will be open from 7:30 in the morning to 7:30 at night. She said the county has to do that to even get close to matching what it did in the past now that it has a week less to work with.

North Carolina’s efforts to adapt to the new early voting hours echoes similar disputes in Ohio, Georgia and elsewhere – where tension has emerged between the desire to establish statewide standards that are fair to all voters and the reality that different communities have different resources and differing ideas of what “convenience” means in the early voting context.

This issue won’t get the same attention that North Carolina’s voter ID law does, but in reality it’s far more more important to the future of elections in the state. Here’s hoping that all counties (not just those seeking the waivers) are able to document turnout and cost at their new early voting locations so that they, and their counterparts across the nation, can learn more about the costs and benefits of the practice. With the push that early voting is getting from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s new report, such information will be valuable to voters and officials nationwide.

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