The cost to implement a recently-passed state law has left many North Carolina counties' boards of elections unsure how to manage early voting for this November's midterm elections, and some are planning to offer fewer voting locations to comply with the law.
While all counties must have a central early voting site open during business hours, most counties have also used additional "one-stop" voting sites, operated by temporary paid staffers. Those sites accommodate voters for whom the central polling place, usually located at the Board of Elections office, is less convenient. Senate Bill 325 — approved last month despite a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper — requires that each one-stop voting site remains open for the entirety of the early voting period, with mandatory hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays.
The county board office can still be open weekday business hours only. While weekend hours are up to the discretion of the county board of elections, they must be the same for all county locations.
This year, early voting is expected to last from Wednesday, Oct. 17, to Saturday, Nov. 3.
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Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and the bill's primary sponsor, said the legislation makes voting easier.
"The intent is to establish 17 full days of early voting," Lewis said in a June 14 tweet. "Hours should be uniform within a county to provide maximum opportunity to vote and minimize poll hour confusion."
But in counties like Wilkes, which opened five total sites in November 2016, the uniformity of the law might, in fact, limit the reach of its early voting plan. In the past, Wilkes County Director of Elections Kim Caudill said she has never operated one-stop sites for the entire early voting period. Rather, they opened on high-turnout days, or whenever the board deemed them most effective. Now, for all 13 of the 12-hour weekdays — not including time for poll workers to set up and close down — one-stop sites are required to be staffed by a full-time employee.
"There's a possibility that we may just have the office site, or just the office site plus one other," Caldwell said. "When we do the additional sites, we never do them the whole time. We only do them the last 4-5 days of the one-stop period."
One benefit of the old law was that county boards could stagger voting sites to account for which times saw the highest turnout. Adam Ragan, Gaston County's director of elections, said his sites see little activity on weekday mornings. "We don't have a lot of voting from 7-10 am," Ragan said. "That's why we've never opened sites that early."
Pitt County employed seven sites in 2016. Tony McQueen, deputy director of the Pitt CBOE, said his board would be more equipped to handle the new law, but it has already turned in its early voting budget. "We will not be able to afford seven sites," McQueen said. "To run seven sites, for all of that time, would increase our budget by two-thirds ... We've just been buffaloed, really."
The state's smallest counties will be less affected by the new law, at least in the short term. Most smaller counties, such as those with just one site, will rehash past schedules this November. Steve Adams, director of the Anson County elections board, said he has never needed to consider more than one site.
In November 2016, 10,545 Anson County voters cast ballots. A total of 5,843, or 55.4 percent, of those voters did so during the early voting period. "As far as financially, our hours have always been long," Adams said. "I don't expect that (the law) will have a big effect on turnout." In 2016, Anson's early voting location was open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. most days.
Guilford, the state's third most-populous county, set up 24 one-stop sites, in addition to its main office, for the November 2016 election. Charlie Collicutt, director of the Guilford board, said half that number of sites are usually used for midterm elections. "In other midterms, (the Guilford board) used 11-12 sites for a midterm election," Collicutt said.
Collicutt added, though, that he's unsure how the Guilford board will choose to account for the new law. He's not sure if the board has the funds to hire full-time staffs for all 11 to 12 of those sites. "If we were at the point where all the sites would normally open for the full 7-7, that would be a lot of man hours," he said. "Even if I were to cut my staffing to the minimums, we'd see a budget increase."
Should the Guilford board hope to set up 25 sites again in 2020, Bob Phillips, executive director of left-leaning Common Cause North Carolina, said the law could be an obstacle. "If a larger county wants to have two-dozen or more sites during an early voting period, that could be cost-prohibitive," Phillips said.
In a Friday memo, the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement set a July 20 deadline for county boards to turn in this year's one-stop site plans. Each board must deliver separate, unanimously approved plans, or the state elections board will have to settle disputed plans.
"Consensus-building will be important," the memo said. "We encourage board members, who are familiar with the unique needs of their county, to think creatively and work through differences of opinion for the good of the voters in your county."
The legislature did make haste to pass an additional law, House Bill 335, to restore the final Saturday of the early voting period, but only for the 2018 midterms. Senate Bill 325 had canceled the concluding day, which was disproportionately used by black voters. Cooper signed HB 335 on Monday.
The follow-up legislation also solved geographic difficulties presented by the previous bill. Hyde County, for example, was uniquely challenged by the original bill. The coastal county's largest community is Ocracoke Island, which has a thousand people and is only accessible by one of three ferries. Of the county's 4,321 possible voters, approximately 24 percent live on the island. The county board, though, is located in Swan Quarter, one of the county's mainland communities.
The follow-up legislation includes a subsection that allows for county boards to petition the state elections board to open a site with an alternative schedule, so long as it meets four conditions. All four of the caveats, which include lacking "bridge access to the mainland of the county," apply only to Hyde.
Director of Elections Viola Williams, a part-time employee, said the long hours will still be a financial challenge, but she's thankful the Ocracoke issue was resolved. Nonetheless, she still has reservations about the new law.
"I'm glad they listened to what they were saying," Williams said. "But I really wish, before the bill had even been pushed through, that they would have gotten the opinions of the people who are directly involved. The way things were done before, where the counties made the plans, was a better way to do it. Each county is going to make plans for what benefits their county the most, whereas when the state steps in, they try to benefit all counties. All counties are not the same."