Guilford County, NC Compromise Expands Early Voting

Guilford.County.Old.Courthouse

[Image via courthousehistory]

I’ve written recently about the opinion by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals invalidating numerous recent changes to North Carolina’s election laws. While most of the attention has been paid to the voter ID portions of the case, another series of battles is shaping up across the state on another topic: early voting. Quite simply, the court’s invalidation of the state law changes has left counties with the responsibility to set their own hours and locations for early voting – and that battle erupted yesterday in Guilford County (Greensboro). The News and Record has more:

At a loud and raucous meeting Monday, the Guilford County Board of Elections unanimously approved a plan for early voting that includes 25 sites and weekend hours — more than in the 2012 presidential election.

It was a departure from a plan the board had discussed last week, which would have eliminated Sunday voting and slashed the number of early voting sites, including polling places at Barber Park, UNC-Greensboro and N.C. A&T. Advocates claimed that plan would make it more difficult for students and minorities to vote.

As approved, early voting will begin on weekdays from Oct. 20-26 in the blue room of the old Guilford County Courthouse, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Thursday, Oct. 27, the county will open 24 additional voting sites from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. until Saturday, Nov. 5, when hours switch to 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday voting will take place only on Oct. 30, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The plan will not take effect until it is approved by the North Carolina State Board of Elections. [A summary of the plan is available here.]

Opponents of that reduced plan packed a hearing room yesterday – but the county board of elections declined to allow any testimony and proceeded with their meeting:

Hundreds of people packed the commissioners’ meeting room Thursday, filling every seat and lining the walls. Before the meeting began, a handful of residents approached the dais to plead for a public comment period.

“There’s a lot of us that have children at A&T and UNCG and want to speak on our children’s right to vote,” Rabbi Fred Guttmann said. “What you’re doing is basically tearing at the fabric of American democracy.”

But Board of Elections Chairwoman Kathryn Lindley declined to provide time for audience members to address the board.

“If you want to have a press conference,” she told Guttmann, “please do that outside of this meeting.”

Without a chance to voice their concerns, audience members grew restless, allowing board members only a few minutes to speak before erupting in chanting, clapping and shouting. Eventually, the crowd linked arms and began singing, “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

Security officers, along with Lindley, pleaded with the crowd to be quiet, to no avail. Eventually, board members pushed back their chairs and debated behind the dais as the crowd chanted, clapped and demanded to be heard.

Finally, the commission announced its decision, which was accepted if not embraced by the audience:

After nearly 10 minutes, a small group of reporters and interfaith leaders approached Lindley, who stated, “We have voted, and the plan is in place.” The leaders, including Guttmann and the Rev. Julie Peeples, quieted the crowd so Lindley could announce the board’s decision.

“Our meeting is already adjourned, and the motion that was proposed passed unanimously,” she said. “And if you want to hear, everyone has to be quiet.”

The adopted plan was met mostly with applause, though some were disappointed that weekend hours would include only one Sunday. Others questioned the selection of the Leonard J. Kaplan Center for Wellness as the lone early-voting site near UNCG, as the facility’s location is not central to campus.

“Many of these sites are inconvenient, for students and for seniors,” said B.J. Gerald-Covington, Greensboro vice-chair of the Guilford County Democratic Party. “This is a compromise. It is certainly not a win.”

Members of the elections board defended the compromise plan – and the decision to debate without public comment – as necessary to get a unanimous plan that will get state approval:

Lindley said after the meeting she was not surprised at the emotions and tenor of the crowd. The debate among board members was necessary, she said, to come to an agreement, as unanimously passed plans are typically approved quickly at the state level.

“I figured it would spark this kind of reaction,” she said. “This is all about negotiating on the board to get a unanimous decision. The plan is accommodating to all voters in Guilford County.”

Horace “Jim” Kimel, the board’s lone Democrat who proposed the plan, also said he was confident that students and minorities would have ample opportunity to vote in November. The approved plan, he added, was much better than the original proposal.

“If they’d gone ahead with the original plan, I would have voted ‘no’ and submitted an alternate plan — which probably would have gone absolutely nowhere,” he said. “Nothing’s perfect. I would like all voting sites open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but that’s not possible.”

This process – with or without the public outcry – is due to be repeated in each of North Carolina’s counties in coming weeks. Don’t be surprised, however, if the debate is equally fierce in those other places, especially given the impending presidential election and the Tar Heel State’s emergence as an Electoral College battleground. Speaking for myself, I prefer that these debates take place in local government as opposed to a courtroom … but it’s undeniable that the process comes with no small amount of drama.

I’ll be watching these developments – including state approval of the counties’ plans. Stay tuned …

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