Elections

Mecklenburg elections board cuts hours for early voting

jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Despite pleas not to curtail early voting, Mecklenburg County elections officials voted Monday to cut the overall number of hours from the 2012 election by 238, even while opening as many as 22 sites around the county.

The board of elections voted in front of an overflow crowd of about 150, almost all of whom wanted more hours to vote early.

Mecklenburg became the latest county to approve an early voting plan after a panel of federal judges threw out a sweeping 2013 election law. Along with requiring voters to show identification and ending same-day registration, the law cut the number of early voting days from 17 to 10 even as it mandated a floor for the number of hours.

Monday’s vote came hours after Gov. Pat McCrory formally asked U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to stay last month’s decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Our Voter ID law has been cited as a model and other states are using similar laws without challenges,” McCrory said in a statement. “The Fourth Circuit’s ruling is just plain wrong and we cannot allow it to stand.”

If Roberts grants the stay, voters this fall could again have to present IDs before casting a ballot and early voting will revert back to what was called for under the old elections law. That was for the same number of hours – 2,742 – used in the 2012 presidential election.

But based on July’s appeals court ruling, counties are preparing for an election without voter IDs – and without a specified number of early voting hours. Monday’s plan still has to be approved by the state board of elections.

State elections Director Kim Strach has urged counties to “be mindful” of expected November turnout and the popularity of early voting. In a memo this month to county boards, she said she expects about 56 percent of all voters this fall to vote early. Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson expects more than 60 percent of county voters to cast early ballots.

Before kicking off Monday’s 2  1/2-hour meeting, board chair Mary Potter Summa, a Republican, told the crowd that she’s “not a fan of early voting.”

“The more (early voting) sites we have, the more opportunities exist for violations,” she said.

When she opened the floor for comment, 33 people spoke in favor of more early voting hours, or at least as many as in 2012. Only one argued for fewer.

Mecklenburg GOP Chair Claire Mahoney said more early voting sites and more hours make it harder for candidates, particularly those with a shoestring budget.

But critics said Mecklenburg’s growth in population and voter registration argues for more, not less, early voting. Some pointed to long early voting lines in 2012. Charlotte City Council member Vi Lyles, a Democrat, was among those urging the board to extend early voting.

“As a candidate, I want every voter to have the opportunity to vote for me or against me,” she said.

Summa started the discussion with a motion to open one early voting site the first week and a dozen the second week. After lengthy discussions – and poring over maps and calculators – the two Republicans on the board agreed to open six sites the first week and 22 the second 10 days. All for a total of 2,504 hours.

Carol Williams, the board’s lone Democrat, argued for more sites and as many hours as in 2012, or 2,742.

“I don’t see any reason to go below what we did in 2012,” she said. “A reduction in hours should not even be on the table.”

Mecklenburg isn’t the first county to adopt a compromise early voting schedule. In Guilford County last week, the Republican-led elections board this month considered but ultimately put off a plan that could have made casting ballots more difficult for college students and black residents.

The board ultimately decided to back a compromise plan that kept more early voting sites open.

Jen Jones, an organizer for Democracy North Carolina, said Monday’s ultimate compromise was better than it might have been. She credited the high citizen turnout.

“The bottom line is this is what happens when people make their voice heard,” she said.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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