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Early Voting Disputes Mostly Settled, Concerns Remain

Photo: A Massachusetts voting station sign
Katri Niemi

Following a three year battle over ballot access, voting activists are content with where things stand a few weeks prior to the start of early voting. Last week, the State Board of Elections reached compromises on more than 30 county disputes over the scope of early voting. It is the latest moment in a long legislative and legal saga.
Attorneys for a series of plaintiffs who sued over the law are now reviewing those early voting plans. At the heart of the debate is whether provisions used largely by African-American voters are being removed disproportionately and against the instructions of a federal court. While voting rights advocates were generally pleased with last week’s outcomes, some concerns remain. Attorneys for the NAACP, ACLU and Southern Coalition for Social Justice will decide by the end of this week to take further legal action.

The origin of the lengthy battle over ballot access

This story largely begins in June of 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It marked the end of something called pre-clearance for states with histories of discrimination. Lawmakers in North Carolina no longer needed approval from the federal government to change state voting law. Within days, they enacted House Bill 589, an instantly controversial piece of legislation that sought to mandate photo identification, eliminate same day registration, and reduce early voting. The law ignited a renewed debate over fraud, common-sense protections, partisan politics, basic voting rights and what constitutes thinly veiled racism.

The NAACP sued Governor Pat McCrory, igniting a series of legal efforts to stop, or limit, the law. One by one, the provisions were rolled back. Only early voting remained when the state law landed before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia this past June.

"It looks pretty bad to me, in terms of purposeful discrimination," Judge Henry Floyd said to lawyers for defendants.

In July, Floyd and two other appellate judges, deemed the state measure unconstitutional. They cited discriminatory intent and concluded that Republicans who drew up House Bill 589 worked with surgical-like precision. The key ruling from the latest decision was that every county in North Carolina would have to provide a 17-day early voting period – the same as the state had in 2012. Defendants appealed to the Supreme Court, but justices didn't intervene. However, despite the appellate court ruling, the early voting issue wasn't settled. Republican appointees on some local elections boards proposed plans to reduce early voting hours, and eliminate Sunday balloting – an option very popular with African-Americans.

Rallies around the state

In Greensboro, several hundred protesters filled the local board of election meeting and chants of "stop suppressing the vote, stop suppressing the vote" echoed loudly.

One problem was that the federal appeals court did not specify how many hours, locations or on what days early voting must be available, and that amounted to somewhat of a grey area. There were more than 30 local disputes that went before the state board of elections for a sort of mediation last week.

Republicans arguing for the reduction of early voting cited a lack of local funds, the need to give poll workers a rest and integrity. Mecklenburg County Republican Liz McDowell told the state board that people who are cognitively disabled, and others with dementia, are being mistreated during early voting.

"The only way to reduce these violations is by gaining better control of the early voting sites, and thereby reducing the opportunity for these violations to occur, as well as to help prevent the victimization of the elderly, the mentally-infirmed and other non-English speaking voter," she said.

Joshua Malcom, a Democrat appointed to the state board, cut McDowell off and incredulously asked "Are you serious?"

McDowell responded, "I am serious. I am serious – that happens."

To be clear, McDowell offered no firm evidence of these claims. According to state election officials, any individual cases of misconduct or fraud are rare, and many say the fight over early voting has more to do with narrow outcomes. Early voting is a widely-used, well-established option for voters in North Carolina. During the 2012 election, more than 2.5 million voters went to the polls early.

"Voting has essentially become a partisan issue, unfortunately. There is one party that wants to increase voting – especially among minorities because they overwhelmingly vote for that party. And there is another party that wants to decrease it," said Mark Sigmon an attorney who argued against early voting reductions. "And, I think what you’re obviously seeing is an attempt to decrease the opportunities for early voting because African Americans and Democrats use it more."

Early voting across the country

More than 30 states now offer early voting in some capacity. Neighboring Virginia, and New York do not. Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party, points to those when he hears criticisms about what is taking place in North Carolina.

"Overall, voters across the state will have unbelievable access to the voting booth: either by absentee voting by mail, or by 17 days of early voting in their county with thousands and thousands of early voting hours," he said.

Woodhouse agrees this is partisan and expects early voting will influence the results come November. He contends everyone in the state will have ample opportunity to cast a ballot.

The role of swing voters

Swing voters in Mecklenburg and Wake counties are expected to decide the tight presidential, U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races this fall. The state election board reached early voting compromises for the counties in question last week.

Early voting has emerged as a popular choice as the state has become more diverse in population and increasingly purple on the national political map. And it could make the difference this fall. In 2008, Barack Obama was the first democrat to carry North Carolina in more than three decades. He won by a mere 14,000 votes. Four years ago, he lost by just 92,000 – his closest defeat. Access, ease and proximity to the polls will likely again influence outcomes this fall. Early voting across the state begins on October 20th.

Jeff Tiberii covers politics for WUNC. Before that, he served as the station's Greensboro Bureau Chief.
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