When early voting begins Thursday, voters in Durham, Johnston and Orange counties will have more hours to cast ballots ahead of the May 6 primary than they have in the past.
But in more than a third of North Carolina’s 100 counties, people will have less time to vote.
The changes are a result of the state’s new election law, which shortened the early voting period by one week but called on counties to keep the same number of cumulative early voting hours as in the last comparable election – in this case the nonpresidential primary of 2010.
That provision prompted some counties to add more voting sites or keep the polls open longer each day and others to ask for a waiver from the requirement – which was also allowed under the new law.
In recent months, the state board of elections – which includes three Republicans and two Democrats – unanimously approved requests from 38 counties to reduce early voting hours compared to 2010. Those counties, which tended to be small and rural, argued that opening additional sites or offering longer hours would strain limited resources or require hiring additional staff. Others pointed out that some of their early vote sites in 2010 served few voters – in some cases, one or two an hour – and they couldn’t justify spending money to open them again.
Josh Howard, State Board of Elections chairman, stressed that decisions to reduce hours were made unanimously by bipartisan elections boards at the county and state levels after reviewing unique circumstances in each county, such as past voter turnout and available sites.
“These have been vetted by three Democrats and five Republicans in every instance,” he said.
The other 62 counties are offering the same or more early voting hours than in 2010, squeezing them into fewer days by opening new sites, extending daily hours or both. Of those, 40 counties – including Durham, Johnston and Orange – will offer more hours for early voters than in 2010, according to data from the state board. Wake and Chatham counties will provide the same number of hours.
It should be noted that those are cumulative hours, counting all the sites in a county that are open during the early period, which ends May 3. Individual voters, depending on the county they live in and the site where they vote, may not have as many hours to choose from as they had in the past.
Durham County will provide 84 more hours of early voting, as the county is opening new voting locations in the northern and southern parts of the county. Elections director Michael Perry said without the new sites, it would have been difficult for the county to equal the number of hours as in 2010 in fewer days. In 2010, only the county board of elections office was open for early voters.
Orange County is offering a combined 284 hours of early voting at five sites, up from 226 hours at two locations four years ago. “I think we are providing ample opportunities to vote early,” said Tracy Reams, the Orange County elections director.
Statewide, when all hours at all early voting sites are added together, voters will have 251 fewer hours to cast ballots than they had in May 2010, a 1.3 percent decrease.
“It is a very small reduction overall statewide,” said George McCue, an elections specialist at the State Board of Elections.
Across the state, 289 early voting sites will be open for the primary, up from 212 in 2010, a 36 percent increase.
Through a spokesman, Gov. Pat McCrory said he was pleased that voters in a majority of counties would have the same number or more hours of early voting than in 2010. McCrory has also “strongly encouraged” both Republican and Democratic state board members to reject all hours-reduction requests for the general election in November, said spokesman Ryan Tronovich.
Many criticisms remain of the new law. Chris Brook, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said the previous 17-day early voting period offered more flexibility – including an extra weekend – than cramming additional voting hours into fewer days or opening new sites that might be used sparingly.
“Certainly, a site being open 17 days in a high-traffic area is more valuable than a site being open 10 days in the middle of nowhere,” Brook said.
Brent Laurenz, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, said he hopes the hours reductions approved for this year’s primary don’t set a precedent to be used to justify cutting early voting hours in November and the presidential election year of 2016, when more voters are expected. The goal, he said, should be to allow as many voters as possible to vote early to increase turnout and prevent long lines on Election Day.
Patrick Gannon writes for the NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer. www.ncinsider.com