Sunday voting, early voting cuts could prompt legal action

Wake County voters waited in line to vote at the Lake Lynn Community Center in north Raleigh early voting site in Raleigh on Friday, March 11, 2016. At back left, voting officials let in four voters at a time to keep the inside lines filled.
Wake County voters waited in line to vote at the Lake Lynn Community Center in north Raleigh early voting site in Raleigh on Friday, March 11, 2016. At back left, voting officials let in four voters at a time to keep the inside lines filled. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Advocates of expanded early voting opportunities are considering legal action after a mixed bag of victories and losses at Thursday’s State Board of Elections meeting.

During a 12-hour meeting Thursday to settle disputed early voting schedules in 33 counties, the state board restored Sunday early voting hours in five counties that had offered the option in 2012.

It also added early voting hours in six counties where schedules had been cut, mandating more locations in Wake and Mecklenburg counties to prevent long lines. But in party line votes, the board’s Republican majority rejected efforts by Democrats to add Sunday voting in counties that hadn’t previously offered it and extend early voting hours in more counties.

Early voting schedules have prompted bitter partisan disputes this year. With tight races expected for president, governor and U.S. Senate in North Carolina, strong turnout could be the key to victory.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could review the state’s early voting schedules to see if they comply with the court’s ruling throwing out the state’s voter ID law. The reduction of Sunday voting was a particular concern of the court in its ruling, which said the law’s “provisions target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The plaintiffs in that lawsuit, which include the state NAACP and the League of Women Voters, have threatened further legal action if they find fault with the final early voting schedule.

“Our lawyers are doing an analysis of all of the decisions that were made yesterday,” NAACP president William Barber said Friday afternoon. “There were some victories yesterday, but we have to look at it in total. We are looking at all the options and whether or not we will have a need to re-engage in litigation.”

Forsyth, Union and Pamlico counties won’t have Sunday voting after offering it in 2012. And Democrats in several other counties were unsuccessful in adding Sunday voting. Sunday early voting is popular among African-American voters, some of whom participate in “souls to the polls” events to cast ballots after church. But many Republicans say Sundays should be a day off for poll workers.

“In counties that now want to have it for the first time, they’re being denied,” Barber said. “Why would the state board deny it along party lines? ... We are deeply disturbed that citizens in North Carolina are having to fight like this simply to exercise the right to vote that the courts found constitutional.”

Still, Democracy North Carolina, which has advocated for more early voting, said Thursday’s state board meeting was an “overall victory.”

“Throughout the day, it was clear the 4th Circuit’s ruling against North Carolina’s discriminatory voter suppression law influenced the state board’s considerations in restoring Sunday voting and voting centers in African-American communities that local Republicans had cut out of their early voting plans,” said the group’s executive director, Bob Hall.

In Stanly County, the GOP-backed early voting plan dropped two sites in predominantly black communities while extending hours at other locations. The lone Democrat on the county’s election board, Ronald Burris, successfully lobbied the state board to add the sites in Norwood and New London.

“If you don’t approve my plan, you’re clearly disproportionately and adversely affecting the black voters that live in those communities,” Burris told the board Thursday night.

While Burris’ plan was one of six victories Thursday for early voting proposals backed by Democrats, N.C. Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse says he doesn’t have “any particular objections” to the state board’s action.

Woodhouse has been under fire for encouraging GOP appointees to county elections boards to “make party line changes to early voting” by limiting the number of hours and keeping polling sites closed on Sundays.

“We just wanted to make sure that voting sites are in our (Republican majority) areas as well as theirs, and for the most part, we achieved that,” Woodhouse said Friday.

But he says he’s concerned that state standards for early voting schedules remain unclear. No state law currently requires counties to offer the same early voting hours as past elections or open polls on Sundays, but State Board of Elections members showed a preference for plans that mirrored previous schedules.

“If we’re going to have some local authority, we need to have some local authority,” he said. “I think what has concerned some of our (county) boards of elections is they don’t know what to expect. They are treated by an ever evolving standard in front of that board.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

By the numbers

17 counties will provide fewer early voting hours than in 2012

3 counties (Forsyth, Union and Pamlico) offered Sunday voting in 2012 but won’t this year

21 counties will provide Sunday voting this year

At Thursday’s meeting, the State Board of Elections selected:

15 early voting schedules backed by Republicans

6 schedules backed by Democrats

12 schedules that were compromises between the two parties’ preferences

8 schedules that featured more voting sites than the county initially approved