Fearing suppression, voting rights advocates make case for early voting sites in letters to county boards

Fearing suppression, voting rights advocates make case for early voting sites in letters to county boards

Early voting in North Carolina is a big deal with a big turnout, but advocates are bracing for a negative impact this year after some last minute legislative wheeling and dealing.

To help minimize the damage, the ACLU of North Carolina and Democracy NC teamed up to inform county boards of elections of the effects of Senate Bill 325 and House Bill 335 and to make recommendations for consideration as they adopt early voting plans.

SB 325 sets uniform voting hours for all early voting sites across the state, and HB 335 adds back in the last Saturday of early voting (for this year), which was taken out in the aforementioned measure. The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement was not consulted by lawmakers about the changes, which led to some confusion and scrambling, according to Emily Seawell, a staff attorney at the ACLU of NC.

“They didn’t get a heads up – none of the county boards got a heads up or chance to weigh in,” she said. “We just wanted to make as much data available as possible.”

Seawell and Isela Gutiérrez, Research and Policy Director at Democracy NC, sent individualized letters to 99 of the 100 county boards of elections (there is an exception in the new law for Hyde County) with analyses of demographic and historical voting data of each area. They also made a case for why early voting should be widely available on weekends and, where feasible, at multiple sites.

“In light of the new restrictions Senate Bill 325 imposes and the local voting patterns in Anson County, we encourage the Board to make early voting widely available on weekends,” states one letter to the Anson County Board of Elections. “Although Senate Bill 325 does not include any additional funding for elections, under North Carolina statute the County Commission must provide ‘reasonable and adequate funds’ to make Election Day and early voting accessible to all voters. While we acknowledge the limitations of county budgets, providing this funding is not discretionary under state law, a fact that legislators repeatedly referenced in passing Senate Bill 325.”

Seawell and Gutiérrez offer support in the letter to the county board in requesting funds from commissioners and encourage collaboration by leaving their contact information.

“We know we all agree: early voting, including accessible sites and weekend hours, is a vital part of our healthy democracy in North Carolina,” the letter states.

Anson County Board of Elections Chairman James Paxton, who is a registered Democrat, said the board passed two early voting plans about a month ago – one to implement if lawmakers didn’t override the Governor’s veto of HB 335 and SB 325 and one to implement if they did.

He said members received a number of letters for their consideration.

“Our plans reflect whatever the law moving forward is going to be,” he added.

Eight other county boards of elections (in Caswell, Columbus, Duplin, Davidson, Hertford, Vance, Sampson and Wilson counties – where Black voters, low-income voters, seniors, and voters with disabilities stand to lose the most) did not return emails seeking comment for this article.

A Rowan County Board of Elections spokesperson confirmed members received the letter but did not offer further comment. The board will meet to discuss early voting at noon Tuesday.

You can read the 10 letters to those county boards mentioned in this article here.

A few days after Seawell and Gutiérrez sent out their letters, the State Board sent out official guidance for county boards about how they would be affected.

At a minimum, a county board office must be open during regular business hours for the 17-day early voting period, which will run this year from Oct. 17 to Nov. 2.

Any other one-stop early voting sites in a county must be agreed upon unanimously by the county board of elections and must operate every weekday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

If any one-stop early voting site is open on a Saturday or Sunday, then all sites in that county must be open for the same number of hours. In addition, if any one-stop early voting site is open, all county sites must be open on that day.

The State Board in its guidance encourages county boards to work together and reach unanimous consensus for the good of voters. Those boards were recently reconfigured by legislators to be four members – two Republicans and two Democrats.

Opponents of that reconfiguration fear gridlock, particularly when it comes to early voting plans.

Gutiérrez said she doesn’t hope for gridlock, but wants the board members to vote their conscience and remember that they’re representing all voters in their counties.

If a county board is not able to agree unanimously on an early voting plan, the board as a whole or members of the board may petition the State Board to adopt a plan for them. Members of the county board can also submit alternative plans for the State Board to consider.

“In those situations, we encourage them not to go along to get along but to offer alternative plans,” said Gutiérrez.

Many county boards of elections are scheduled to meet Tuesday to finalize their early voting plans, which are due to the State Board by July 20.

County board chairmanship also changes hands Tuesday from Democratic to Republican, according to Paxton.

He said a Republican will take over as chairman of the Anson County Board of Elections tomorrow, but that he didn’t think discussion on early voting plans would have been any different under someone else’s leadership.

“We work very well together,” he said, adding that board members are friends on and off the job. “It’s very little politics.”

As of Monday, 20 county boards submitted their plans to the State Board, according to Josh Lawson, general counsel for the State Board. Three of those plans were not unanimously approved (in Orange, Pitt and Wake counties).

Gutiérrez said most of the approved plans she has seen retain sites that are heavily used by Black voters, which is heartening, but some have eliminated polling sites at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), which is discouraging.

Guilford County, for example, eliminated North Carolina A&T State University as an early voting site. County board members discussed including the site but ultimately decided against it, according to the Greensboro News and Record.

Gutiérrez said it’s important for voters to know that their county boards are making decisions now about where they will be able to vote in the fall.

“Their favorite early voting spot, their most convenient early voting spot may be eliminated,” she added. “Pay attention, attend meetings and tell board members why a particular site is important to you.”

Seawell said lawmakers have put county boards in tough positions – especially considering that most counties have already adopted budgets for the year.

“This is a big burden,” she added.

The effect of both HB 335 and SB 325 will be suppression of the Black vote, Seawell said with certainty.

“We know that’s going to be an effect, but this transcends race,” she said of the changes to early voting. “Everyone uses it.”