Wake County residents will now have more places to vote early ahead of the Nov. 8 election, the North Carolina State Board of Elections ruled Thursday.
The board voted 3-2 to approve a proposal from the lone Democrat on the Wake County Board of Elections to expand the number of voting sites from one to nine during the first week of early voting, which starts Oct. 20.
“More Wake County voters will have the opportunity to cast their ballot at a time and place that is convenient to them. That’s a good thing, no matter how you spin it,” said Brian Fitzsimmons, chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party.
Wake has more registered voters – 684,753 – than any other county in the state. With that in mind, state elections board member Josh Malcolm referred to Wake’s initial plan of only one early voting site for the first week as “a train wreck.”
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Wake tends to vote Democratic more than the rest of the state, but its election board – like all three-member county election boards in North Carolina – is run by a Republican majority.
Under a plan approved by that Republican majority last month, Wake would have only opened the Board of Elections office on Salisbury Street in downtown Raleigh during the first week of early voting. State law allows county election board members to appeal plans passed by their peers.
Members of 33 counties, including Wake, filled the state elections board office in downtown Raleigh on Thursday. The five-member state board spent all day ruling on appeals one at a time, sometimes debating with county board members.
Mark Ezzell, the Wake Democrat, waited until nearly 5 p.m. to make his case for more sites. He argued that Wake’s lone site in downtown Raleigh is too far away for residents of the other 11 Wake municipalities, and that the site poses parking challenges.
“You’ve got just a very slight nibble of our parking issues today when you drove here,” Ezzell said. “There is literally no free parking downtown at that site. It is, frankly, unsafe.”
Wake is a swing county that could play a major role in state and national elections. In the past two gubernatorial races, the county supported Democrat Bev Perdue in 2008 and Republican Pat McCrory in 2012.
The state board, which has a Republican majority, ruled Thursday less than a month after email records revealed top N.C. GOP leaders had asked county boards to restrict early voting.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, suggested Thursday that expanding early voting could lead to logistical problems. He preferred the election plans that were in place prior to a federal court ruling that nullified North Carolina’s voter ID law.
“We continue to believe that the early voting rules adopted on a bipartisan motion during the voter ID debate was the fairest and most economical solution,” Woodhouse said in a text.
“While it compressed early in person voting to 10 days, counties having to offer the same or more hours resulted in even more early and evening hours or more early voting locations,” he said.
Woodhouse, whom some have criticized for contacting county election board members, added that the state board’s votes on Wake and others show there’s no party-wide effort to discriminate.
“It proves the narrative the left always wants to paint about some massive Republican conspiracy to hurt some segments of voters is simply not true in Wake or anyplace else,” he said.
Ezzell said Wake’s additional first-week voting sites will now include Apex Community Center, Avery Street Recreation Center in Garner, Chavis Community Center in Southeast Raleigh, Herb Young Community Center in Cary, Northern Regional Center in Wake Forest, Lake Lynn Community Center in Raleigh, Hunt Recreation Center in Holly Springs and Eastern Regional Center in Zebulon.
The state’s ruling on Wake also maintains the 20 sites the county had planned to open between Oct. 27 and Nov. 5.
Meanwhile, the state board voted to keep the majority of a plan Orange County officials adopted last month that sets a 15-day early voting schedule that includes five locations. The plan does not include Sunday voting, but state officials directed Orange to open sites at 8 a.m. on the Saturday before election day, rather than 9 a.m.
The board effectively rejected a proposal from Republican Orange County elections board member Bob Randall, who appealed the state for fewer early-voting hours because he said he was worried about overworking poll officials.
“I had one of the staff members tell me that they’re working so late, such long hours that her mind became dazed; it was stressed out,” Randall told the Chapel Hill News last month. “And when that happens, we all know people are more apt to make mistakes.”