Politics & Government

This early voting plan would take away a popular day. It's speeding through the NC House.

A popular day for early voting would be eliminated under a proposal that supporters say is meant to bring uniformity to the 100 North Carolina counties' one-stop voting schedules.

The proposal to change early voting has bipartisan support and is speeding through the legislature. It was made public late Wednesday night and received a preliminary vote of approval in the state House on Thursday afternoon.

House Speaker Tim Moore moved on to a vote before lawmakers were able to signal that they wanted to talk about the proposal.

"Aren't we going to debate the bill?" Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat, could be heard asking while House members were voting.

Moore said Morey could debate before the final House vote. After the House takes its final vote, the state Senate would need to approve the bill before it goes to Gov. Roy Cooper.

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The bill would set a 17-day early voting period that ends the Friday before Election Day, eliminating the following Saturday. All early voting sites that operate Monday-Friday must be open 12 hours, from 7 a.m. - 7 p.m. Under the proposal, early voting would start this year on Wednesday, Oct. 17 and end Nov. 2.

Democracy North Carolina, a nonprofit concerned with election law, said nearly 200,000 people cast ballots on the last Saturday of early voting in 2016, and that the last Saturday is disproportionately used by African-American voters.

Rep. David Lewis, a chief architect in the state House of elections laws, said the proposal would make it easier for elections officials to pivot from running early voting to Election Day preparations, and make it easier for people to know when and where they can vote early.

"It's trying to provide a uniform platform," said Lewis, a Harnett County Republican.

In North Carolina's one-stop voting, unlike on Election Day, people can register to vote at the same time they cast ballots.

Early voting has become increasingly popular for general elections, with ballots cast in the weeks before Election Day rivaling those cast on that Tuesday.

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Democracy NC Executive Director Tomas Lopez compared the bill to a 2013 elections law that a panel of federal judges struck down.

"Once again, politicians in Raleigh are coming back for a second bite at voting restrictions first introduced and overturned by a federal court on 2013, without input from election officials and the public," Lopez said in a statement. "This latest proposal not only eliminates the popular, final Saturday of early voting, disproportionately used by African-American voters, but also creates onerous requirements that will put a strain on county election officials, disincentivize weekend early voting access, and reduce voters' options to cast a ballot."

The bill takes away the local elections boards' discretion on how to vary hours based on expected traffic. If the county decides to have weekend hours, it must open all early voting sites. Voting sites wouldn't be required to open for 12 hours on Saturdays and Sundays.

Rep. Shelly Willingham, a Rocky Mount Democrat, said he's heard complaints from residents confused about local early voting schedules and when sites would be open. "This is a good way to go," he said of the bill.

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Critics said the proposal could pose financial hardships for counties, which could force them to operate fewer sites.

Greg Flynn of Raleigh said keeping all sites open for 12 hours would strain Wake County's resources. Flynn is chairman of the Wake County Board of Elections, but said he was speaking for himself.

Voting traffic rises and falls, he said, with heavy use in the beginning and final days of the early voting period. Having 12-hour days in the middle of the 17-day schedule "is not a good use of resources," he said.

The mandates would require the elections board to ask the county for more money or cut back on early voting sites, Flynn said. "To keep each open for 12 hours, we can't do it without more money," he said. "It's simple math."

The proposal surprised the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. In a meeting called Thursday morning, board Chairman Andy Penry, a Democrat, said he didn't see the proposal until late Wednesday night.

Lewis didn't talk to the board or state elections staff about the bill before he presented it.

State board members indicated that some portions of the bill may have been declared unconstitutional, something that elections staff would have noticed.

Board member John Lewis, a Republican, said legislators aren't required to consult with the elections board.

"For us to comment without seeing the legislation is political," he said. "The statute says the General Assembly can come to us for advice if they want, it doesn't mandate it."

Colin Campbell of the NC Insider contributed.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; @Lynn_Bonner