Viola Williams has been crunching numbers and working out possible solutions since last week, when the General Assembly fast-tracked a controversial bill that makes sweeping changes to early voting.
As elections director of Hyde County, Williams was already making early voting plans for the November election. In one of the state’s smallest counties (population about 5,800) that means just two early voting sites — the board office on Main Street in Swan Quarter and one at Ocracoke, the small island that lies two hours and forty-five minutes away by ferry.
When Williams heard that the new law would mandate all early voting sites open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for 17 days, she knew what it meant for her office. They would no longer be able to afford the Ocracoke site.
“It’s absolutely crushing,” Williams said. “We have about 700 registered voters there and we typically see two to three hundred turn up for early voting. It would cost me somewhere around $3,000 to open up the site for those hours, that many days. How can we justify that?”
For Williams and for many elections directors in smaller counties across the state, the answer is that they can’t. The law came well after budgets were set and, for many, after their site and staffing plans were already in the works.
Traditionally, boards of election and county directors have had the latitude to decide when to open their early voting sites and for how long based on the traffic in their area and years of experience with local voting trends. In mandating days and hours for all 100 counties in the state, Williams said, the law will force many to scale back the number of early voting sites they provide in order to afford the days and hours mandated.
“I hate it for them,” Williams said of voters on Ocracoke who will lose the convenient one-stop registration and early voting site the county has always been able to provide. “It’s such a disadvantage for them. But I don’t know how we can do it.”
Even in the state’s larger counties, elections directors are scrambling to react to the new law.
“It’s definitely going to change the algebra of how we do this,” said Charlie Collicutt, director of elections in Guilford County. “A lot of the prep work that we’ve already done will have to change, which isn’t such a big deal. We can handle that. But there’s a budget number that we’ve worked with, that is in the commissioners’ lap right now. And that’s obviously going to have to change.”
Typically Guilford County will open up its office in Greensboro and its office in High Point for the first week or so of early voting, Collicutt said. They would be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. — typical office hours.
Then his office would add more sites throughout the county later in the process, when early voting turnout has historically increased. Guilford usually has nine to 12 sites depending on what kind of election it is and what turnout they can expect, based on their data on previous elections.
Those sites are generally open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., which the county has found allows them to capture people when they vote most heavily.
“What we typically see is kind of a nice push in the beginning, a slow period toward the middle and then it can really ramp up in that last Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” Collicutt said. “We don’t want to waste taxpayer money when people aren’t showing up. So we’ve figured out how we can be good stewards.”
The mandated 17 day, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule will change those calculations, Collicutt said.
The days and the hours that sites will need to be open will be the same whether it’s a historic-turnout presidential election or a low turnout municipal primary.
“With 12 hour days we’re either going to have to pay a lot of overtime or do split shifts and then have to double our staffing,” Collicutt said. “For staff, Election Day is a 13 hour day that that’s a hard day. To do that for 17 days straight that’s going to be a change for us.”
Michael Dickerson, elections director in Mecklenburg County, agreed. The new schedule will stretch resources further and cause him to hire more staff to avoid working people for 12 hour shifts. As the state’s largest county, they’ll likely swing the costs and extra work involved in reacting to the law — something Dickerson said he knows is easier for his office than for smaller counties like Hyde.
“I don’t know what the General Assembly’s intent is in doing this,” Dickerson said. “That’s not for me. Mine is just to administer the elections and service the voters of Mecklenburg County, who consistently in this county have shown they like early voting. We’re going to make sure they continue to have that.”
Dickerson, like most of the state’s elections directors and boards of directors, said he would have appreciated more lead time before such dramatic changes.
“What you have to do with elections is plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Dickerson said. “I appreciate the legislature bringing things that happen in elections to the forefront…but we’d like to know about things as early as possible so that we can properly execute it. I assume the General Assembly doesn’t like to scramble — human nature is to like to do things with as much notice as you can. That makes everything better. I don’t want to change things for people so that they really don’t know what’s going on.”
The bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement agreed. Board members voted to send a letter to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) last week, asking that lawmakers give them at least 24 hours’ notice before introducing legislation that will impact the elections they have to run.
The letter was dismissed on the floor of the House by Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), the bill’s sponsor. Lewis said he didn’t believe board Chairman Andy Penry, an attorney, has any elections expertise.
Gerry Cohen served as Director of Legislative Drafting at the General Assembly for 30 years until 2012, then served two more years years as Special Counsel. He knows a few things about elections and drafting legislation, and said this is not the way to craft an election law.
“I think no one cared enough to think about election administration here,” Cohen said of the bill. “This was clearly drafted by someone who does not know about election administration and does not care. It shows a total lack of preparation. They consulted nobody. I’m sure it’s a cookie cutter thing from other states that have cut back early voting and cut back sites. That’s what it’s going to force them to do.”
Early voting has been a partisan battleground for years. Last year, the General Assembly’s Republican majority was handed a federal appeals court defeat. That stymied a 2013 effort to make cuts to early voting, create a photo ID requirement and eliminate same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting and preregistration of high school students.
Democratic lawmakers contend that this legislative session’s early voting and voter ID bills are just another way of accomplishing the goals of the defeated law, which, the court ruled, was designed to discriminate against Black voters and to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
That fight is likely to continue, Cohen said — and lead right back to the courts.
The new bill would set the early voting period to begin Wednesday, Oct. 17 and end Friday, Nov. 2. That would eliminate the final Saturday of early voting before election day — the most popular early voting day, especially among Black voters in North Carolina.
In 2014, 103,513 voters voted on that day and in 2016 it was 193,138. Unlike Election Day, early voting is a “one stop” period in which people can register to vote on the same day.
During the House debate, Lewis justified the removal of the popular last Saturday by saying it gave elections offices and elections workers a break to prepare for a busy Election Day. That’s a break most offices don’t need, elections directors across the state said this week, as they usually have the flexibility to set their hours and staffing levels where they need them to deal with Election Day and early voting as their county finds necessary.
“Removing that last Saturday, which is disproportionately used by Black voters, is just asking for an injunction,” Cohen said. “I’m sure this is going to go to court. If the court simply adds the Saturday back, that’s good…but it makes it worse for the boards of elections, because then will have to work people 17 days in a row, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and they won’t even have that Saturday to prepare for election day.”
The bill went to Gov. Roy Cooper Friday. A veto is anticipated, but Republicans in the General Assembly appear to have the votes to override, as they have with several others already this session.