The General Assembly passed a bill today that would change early voting times. Democrats say the bill that has been touted by Republicans as a measure to expand early voting, could actually make it harder for some to vote.
A central part of the debate on the House floor was a provision that would require counties to open all of their early voting sites from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Representative David Lewis (R-Harnett) gave final comments before the House voted 61-40 in favor of the bill. He said the measure is about making early voting hours more consistent, and that it would help working people get to the polls.
Early voting will be "more reliable and dependable, so that the voters would know that the early voting site or sites would be open from a set time in the morning to a set time in the evening," said Lewis, who shepherded the bill.
Democratic leader Darren Jackson (D-Wake) says the mandate to keep uniform hours would likely cause counties to close some early voting sites entirely, rather than expand hours at all of them. The bill includes no additional funding, so some counties might struggle to afford to staff multiple voting sites for twelve hours a day.
"In that way, it is a big unfunded mandate on our counties," Jackson said, adding that it would disproportionately affect early voting options in rural counties.
"This bill would make Hyde County either open its Outer Banks site from at least 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. five days a week, or to close it." Jackson said. "Which would require Outer Banks voters to travel by ferry to early vote on the mainland."
The bill also eliminates one of the most popular days of early voting – the Saturday before election day. In 2016, the final Saturday was the second most popular early voting day among African-Americans. The last Friday before Election Day was the most popular.
A federal court struck down a 2013 law that limited early voting because it disproportionately affected black voters. House Democrats warned that this bill could face similar criticism. Republicans say this bill is not comparable to the one that was struck down.
Democrats in both the House and Senate voiced concerns that county boards of election were not consulted before the bill was introduced, and may have to scramble to comply with the changes for the 2018 fall elections.
The bill passed 23-11 in the Senate and goes to Governor Roy Cooper for consideration. The General Assembly will likely be able to override a veto.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.