House votes to shorten early voting

N.C. election chief disputes claims the shorter period would save counties money.

THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVERMay 19, 2011 

— A bill that would shorten North Carolina's early voting period would create longer lines at the polls and increase the cost of elections, the executive director of the state elections board said Wednesday.

Gary Bartlett's comments came in a memo shortly after the House narrowly passed the measure that would reduce the current 2 1/2-week early voting period by a week, even while opening polls for a second Saturday before the election.

The Republican-backed bill passed 60-58 largely along party lines.

Supporters said it would save money for local elections boards by shortening the time early voting sites are open. Legislative researchers estimate it would save counties about $2,000 per site. Bartlett disputes that.

"That perceived savings would be more than offset by cost increases for several reasons," he wrote.

Counties, he said, would have to deal with greater Election Day turnout. That might entail opening new precincts or buying new voting equipment. It would also reduce the flexibility early voting allows to allocate equipment and staff.

"Increasing the number of permanent precincts to handle the number of North Carolina voters is a permanent cost that is not flexible based on need," wrote Bartlett.

The memo marked Bartlett's first public comments on the merits of the bill, which now goes to the Senate. A similar bill there not only would curtail early voting, but end it on Sundays and bar new voters from registering at the polls.

The bills would take effect for the 2012 elections. The last presidential election in 2008 saw long lines of early voters throughout the state.

It's unclear whether Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue would sign a bill. Spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said, "It strikes us as one of the lesser important topics to be working on right now."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bert Jones, said shortening the early voting period would shorten campaigns. "People like for campaigns to be shorter and people like for campaigns to be less costly," he said during Wednesday's debate.

Jones, an unaffiliated General Assembly member from Rockingham, also said it would save local election boards money. But that could be at least partly mitigated if counties open new sites to accommodate early voters.

Mecklenburg County Elections Director Michael Dickerson said 45,000 county voters voted in the first week of early voting in 2008. With a shorter voting period in 2012, he said, he might ask his board to open 30 voting sites, 10 more than in 2008.

Otherwise, he said, "those additional 45,000 would make longer lines."

Bartlett said the measure would inconvenience voters.

"Reducing the early voting period would result in increased waits, both at early voting sites and at Election Day polling places," he wrote.

Some critics were more pointed.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out if you cut a week off early voting ... it suppresses the vote," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham.

Six Republicans joined 52 Democrats in opposing the bill. One was Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville, who said election workers in his county are happy with the existing law. He questioned the cost savings.

"I just don't think they are real," he said. "They're certainly not real in Henderson County."

Several African-American lawmakers, including Democrat Kelly Alexander of Charlotte, spoke against the bill. Some said it would lower black turnout.

In 2008, African-Americans made up 21 percent of registered voters but cast 27 percent of early votes, according to Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury. And 52 percent of all registered black voters cast early ballots.

A survey released Wednesday by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showed 35 percent of N.C. voters support cutting the early voting period while 44 percent opposed it. The poll's margin of error was 3.4 percentage points.

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5059

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