GOP lawmakers' efforts to curtail early voting draws opposition

rchristensen@newsobserver.comApril 2, 2013 

  • Early voting by the parties

    Early voting Democrats totaled 1.2 million in 2012, or 49 percent of all early voters, with Republicans accounting for 765,683 votes, or 30 percent. Republicans closed the gap from 2008 when 54 percent of the early voters were Democrats and 28 percent were Republicans. During the strong Republican year in 2010, 47 percent of the early voters were Democrats, and 36 percent were Republicans. It is not clear whether Democrats would maintain their edge. Among those who voted early in 2012, 66 percent where white and 29 percent were black.

    Same-day registration in 2012 also had a strong Democratic edge with 46,691, or 48 percent, registering and voting on the same day, compared to 25,868 Republicans, or 27 percent. Among same-day registrants, 51 percent were white and 32 percent were black.

— Chuck Tryon is one of the 57 percent of North Carolinians who cast their ballot before Election Day last year.

He said it was convenient for both him and his wife, who live in the Raleigh suburb of Holly Springs but face a long commute to their jobs in Fayetteville.

“It is incredibly valuable to us,” said Tryon, an English professor at Fayetteville State University. “I have always appreciated it.’’

But early voting – a practice in North Carolina since 2000 – may soon be sharply restricted if the Republican legislature has its way. The legislature is considering bills that would reduce the early voting period from two and half weeks to one week, and would end Sunday voting. It also would end the practice of allowing persons to register and vote on the same day at early voting sites.

The Democrats and their allies have been holding almost daily news conferences charging that this legislation is a partisan effort aimed at depressing Democratic turnout that also will have the effect of inconveniencing all voters in the process. The state NAACP has begun running ads on 14 radio stations and in eight newspapers attacking the efforts, saying they are a partisan attempt to suppress the turnout of black voters.

“Our governor has talked about having customer service as a big focal point of the state,’’ House Democratic leader Larry Hall of Durham said at a news conference on Tuesday. “What is customer service when you take away people’s right and make them stand in long lines hours upon long hours. Is that customer service?’’

The Republicans have said relatively little about the bills.

House Majority Edgar V. Starnes of Hickory, the bill’s chief sponsor, said Tuesday he would not discuss any aspect of the bill until it is taken up in committee, even declining to answer a question about why this might be a good idea.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Starnes said.

Sen. Jerry Tillman of Archdale, the Senate’s chief sponsor, did not return a reporter’s call.

‘A closer look’

Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden, said the cost of elections has gone up “substantially’’ because of early voting and that Sunday “traditionally has not been a politicized time frame.”

Berger noted that early voting was approved in 2000 and same-day registration in 2007. “These are voting rules, regulations that were put in place in very recent years,” Berger told The Greensboro News & Record, “and I think it is totally appropriate for us to take a closer look.’’

Early voting, Sunday voting and same-day registration had all been enacted by Democratic legislators over the years to expand voting.

It also worked to Democrats’ political advantage, especially in the 2008 and 2012 elections, because of the extraordinary political organization of the Democratic presidential campaign of Barack Obama. North Carolina had the biggest gain in voter turnout between the 2004 and 2008 election of any state in the country. The Republicans closed the gap some in 2012, but the Democrats still held a large margin in early voting.

After the Republicans won control of the state House in 2010, they tried to cut back on early voting. The House in 2011 voted 61-53 largely along party lines to shorten early voting by a week, but the measure did not gain final passage.

During the debate, Republican Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex, the bill’s chief sponsor, argued that the shorter early voting period would shorten the election and take the advantage away from the candidate with more money.

Early voting has been popular, with 2.5 million voters taking advantage of it last fall. A poll released Monday found that 78 percent of North Carolina voters support early voting and 53 percent support early voting on Sundays. The poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic leaning firm based in Raleigh.

What happened in Fla.

Democrats point to Florida, which under GOP leadership, reduced early voting from 14 to 8 days during the 2012 elections. In some counties it led to four- and five-hour waits in lines. The Florida legislature is considering a bill to restore early voting to 14 days..

Critics also question whether money would be saved by reducing early voting.

John Gilbert, who was the Democratic chairman of the Wake County Board of Elections from 2001 to 2009, said early voting actually saves money. He said if voting is concentrated in fewer days, more precincts have to be created, more voting machines purchased and more poll workers hired.

Gilbert, a retired political science professor at N.C. State University, said that early ballots also are the most secure, because fraud can more easily be caught than those cast on Election Day.

Sunday voting is up to each county and has been around since at least the 1990s. It is used primarily in the urban counties and has been particularly popular in the black community with their “Souls to the Polls,” program of urging people to register to vote after attending church.

State Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham said that in age where people attend football games, go to shopping malls and a host of other activities – and where there is now legislation being considered to expand hunting – it makes little sense to end Sunday voting.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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