Twenty-Three North Carolina Counties Change Voting Schedules

Early voting was reduced across all 23 counties, while nine eliminated Sunday voting

Twenty-Three North Carolina Counties Change Voting Schedules
Image: Morguefile
September 7, 2016

North Carolina voters may have to change their plans for where and when they will vote in the upcoming elections.

The Decisions

Election boards in 23 counties across the state have approved new schedules reducing early voting, reports The News & Observer (N&O), while Sunday voting was eliminated in nine counties. Thirty-three counties will have their early voting schedules decided by the State Board of Elections due to split votes by local election boards.

The boards decided on the voting schedules after N.C. Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse emailed appointees on the county boards, encouraging them to "make party line changes to early voting" by limiting early voting hours and closing Sunday voting sites.

In all 100 counties in North Carolina, Republicans hold a majority on the local elections board.

Seventy local boards voted in favor of offering more early voting hours than they offered in the presidential election in 2012, and 23 boards cut early voting hours from 2012 levels.

Twenty-one counties offered Sunday voting in 2012. Nine of those counties voted to eliminate it, while 12 voted to continue the practice.

The State Board of Elections, which comprises three Republicans and two Democrats, will be reviewing the decisions and determining the early voting schedules for 33 counties, where there were split votes on the local boards.

Cutting Hours

Lenoir is one county that voted to cut hours. It plans to offer voting at one location in downtown Kinston only during business hours on weekdays and on the Saturday morning prior to the election. This is the minimum required by law and offers less than one quarter of the 443 hours than it did in 2012 for early voting.

The county's two Republican board members defended the decision in a letter to the State Board, claiming that having only one location will enable poll workers to "monitor fraud more effectively." They also note that the plan they propose will cost Lenoir County only $7,600 in comparison with the plan proposed by the Democratic board member, which will cost the county $62,000.

The letter also reassures the State Board that voters will have no problem casting their votes at the site.

"The Lenoir County Board of Elections site offers ample space to accommodate all voters willing to cast a ballot," it says. "The site is easily accessible, well known, and safe for all voters."

The Democratic board member, Courtney Patterson, believes that his fellow board members were following Woodhouse's emailed instructions. He stated this belief in his own letter to the State Board and added that only John Nix, chairman of the Lenoir County GOP, spoke in support of cutting early voting hours during the board's meeting. Nix's wife Michele is the NCGOP's vice-chairwoman.

Patterson hopes that the State Board will approve his plan instead, which will offer 828 hours of early voting at six sites, including one Sunday voting site.

"Because we have so many working-class voters in our county, it is critical that we offer some evening and weekend hours to enable those voters to participate in early voting," he wrote in his letter.

Early voting during Sunday hours has been particularly popular in the past among African-American voters, some of whom put together events known as "souls to the polls" in which groups of church members voted together after attending Sunday church services.

Woodhouse cited "respect for voters' religious preferences, protection of our families and allowing the fine election staff a day off" as his reasons for requesting the elimination of Sunday voting. In spite of that request, four counties that did not offer Sunday voting in 2012 voted to offer it this year.

The Role of the State Board

According to the N&O, it will be the task of the State Board of Elections to "review the plans as well as dissenting plans – typically filed by the lone Democrat on a county board – and set a final schedule for early voting, which begins Oct. 20."

Schedules for early voting had already been set when a federal court threw out North Carolina's voter identification law late in July. In doing so, not only was the photo identification requirement revoked, but counties are now required to offer at least 17 days of early voting.

However, the ruling actually enables counties to legally offer fewer early voting hours and locations than were offered in the 2012 election because it throws out the floor on hours set by the voter ID law. That law limited the early voting period to 10 days but required counties to offer at least as many voting hours as they had in the 2012 election.

The Republican majorities on some boards decided to disregard Woodhouse's request and voted to expand early voting. For instance, Catawba County voted to increase from the 273 early voting hours it offered in 2012 to 715 hours this year. It will also keep two polling locations open on Sundays.

"As a board, we didn't consider what (Woodhouse) said," said David Hood, board chairman and a Republican. "Our obligation was to the voters. ... Our decision making is not based on partisan considerations, and that's been true for the whole 18 years I've been on the board."

Catawba's plans, along with those of 66 other counties, are final and will not need to be reviewed by the State Board because the local boards voted unanimously to pass the plans.

And even decisions issued by the State Board may not be final, according to Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina. He claims that some could be challenged in court if the State Board decides to uphold plans limiting minority voting through elimination of either the Sunday vote or polling locations in African-American communities.