Elections

NC Republican Party seeks ‘party line changes’ to limit early voting hours

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the N.C. Republican Party, has weighed in on early voting schedules.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the N.C. Republican Party, has weighed in on early voting schedules. hlynch@newsobserver.com

The N.C. Republican Party encouraged 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.

NCGOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse emailed the request to Republican county board members and other party members on Sunday. The News & Observer obtained copies of the emails through a public records request.

County elections boards are developing new early voting schedules in response to a federal court ruling that threw out the state’s voter ID law. In addition to revoking North Carolina’s photo ID requirement, the ruling requires counties to offer 17 days of early voting.

The voter ID law limited early voting to a 10-day period, but counties were required to offer at least the same number of voting hours as they did during the 2012 election. The court ruling eliminates that floor on hours – meaning that counties can legally provide fewer hours and fewer early voting sites than they did in the last presidential election.

Early voting schedules must be approved by the three-member Board of Elections in each county. Because the state has a Republican governor, two of three members on each board are Republicans, while one is a Democrat – generally appointees recommended by their party’s leadership.

“Our Republican Board members should feel empowered to make legal changes to early voting plans, that are supported by Republicans,” Woodhouse wrote in his email to board members. “Republicans can and should make party line changes to early voting.”

Woodhouse outlines several priorities for developing new early voting schedules:

Fewer early voting opportunities: Woodhouse suggests limiting early voting hours because the sites allow voters to use same-day registration – a practice the voter ID law sought to eliminate.

“We believe same-day registration is ripe with voter fraud, or the opportunity to commit it,” he wrote. “Same-day registration is only available during early voting. We are under no obligation to offer more opportunities for voter fraud.”

On Monday, the Mecklenburg County elections board voted to cut the overall number of hours from the 2012 election by 238 – despite calls from most of the speakers at the public hearing who called for increasing hours. The board’s Republican chairwoman said she’s “not a fan of early voting.”

She later said she “did not see” Woodhouse’s email, and “it really wouldn’t affect my decision anyway.”

No Sunday voting: Sunday early voting hours have been popular among African-Americans, some of whom organize “souls to the polls” events where church members vote together after Sunday services.

Counties aren’t required to open early voting sites on Sundays, and Woodhouse lobbied against it.

“Many of our folks are angry and are opposed to Sunday voting for a host of reasons including respect for voter’s religious preferences, protection of our families and allowing the fine election staff a day off, rather than forcing them to work days on end without time off,” he wrote. “Six days of voting in one week is enough. Period.”

College campus sites unnecessary: Republican elections board members have frequently opposed opening early voting sites on college campuses, but others argue that the sites are needed because some students don’t have cars – making it difficult for them to access off-campus polling places. College students tend to be more liberal than the general population.

“No group of people are entitled to their own early voting site, including college students, who already have more voting options than most other citizens,” Woodhouse wrote to GOP election board members.

In Wake County, newly appointed Board of Elections member Eddie Woodhouse – who is Dallas Woodhouse’s cousin – argued unsuccessfully for eliminating Sunday voting hours and a site at N.C. State University. The other Republican on the board, Ellis Boyle, did not support the request.

Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina – which has opposed the voter ID law and lobbied county boards to offer more early voting hours – said Dallas Woodhouse’s request to Republican board members is “terribly irresponsible.”

“It’s disturbing and deplorable that the executive director of a political party who is involved in appointing these people” is telling them what to do, Hall said. “If I was the chair of the party, I would consider firing an executive director that sends a directive like this.”

In an interview, Woodhouse defended the move. “I’m an unabashed partisan, and we have dozens and dozens of Democracy N.C. and NAACP and other people flooding these meetings asking for partisan considerations,” he said. “Our members have a duty, I believe, to act within the law to at least consider the Republican point of view. That’s all we ask them to do.”

Woodhouse said Democrats will be partly responsible if this year’s election has fewer early voting hours, because they sought to have the voter ID law – and its minimum hour requirement – thrown out. Democrats had pushed for the minimum hour requirement when the law was originally passed in 2013.

Woodhouse said board members aren’t obligated to address his concerns.

“I’m not a legislator,” he said. “I have no more say on this than any other human being in North Carolina.”

Woodhouse notes that the N.C. Democratic Party also sent supporters a memo about early voting. Its mass email asks Democrats to contact their county elections board members and lobby for a “strong early vote plan with evening and weekend hours, and convenient locations for your county, like college campuses.”

So far, a number of Republican elections board members have voted for plans that include Sunday hours and college campus polling sites. Some have rejected efforts to significantly reduce the number of early voting hours offered in 2012.

“Fortunately, many Republican board members have more respect for their oath ... to serve all voters than they are beholden to Dallas Woodhouse,” Hall said.

Hall also questions whether reducing early voting hours will actually help Republicans in the election. He says many supporters of Republican Donald Trump are energized and might be eager to head to the polls in the first days of early voting. Many counties, including Wake, are only offering one site – the county Board of Elections office – during the first week.

“They could be shooting themselves in the foot by their nastiness,” he said.

Legally, counties are only required to offer one early voting site during regular business hours and on the Saturday morning before the election. The State Board of Elections has cautioned counties to consider turnout needs as they schedule early voting. Some early voting sites have seen long lines and wait times of several hours in past elections.

“We strongly encourage county boards of elections to be mindful of expected turnout and historical use of one-stop early voting in their respective counties,” state board executive director Kim Strach wrote in a memo. “Statewide historical data indicates that roughly 56 percent of all voters this election will use one-stop early voting, which will reduce lengthy lines on Election Day.”

County boards have until next Wednesday to submit their early voting plans. In counties where the board’s vote wasn’t unanimous, the State Board of Elections will review the plan and determine if it meets the “geographic, demographic and partisan interests of the county.”

Hall says his group will likely weigh in on plans that go before the state board. “We will be continuing to advocate for plans that are positive for all voters,” he said.

Charlotte Observer staff writer Jim Morrill contributed to this report

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

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