The Senate Elections and Redistricting Committee on Thursday approved bills restructuring the elections boards and changing voting rules. (Photo: NCGA videostream)
Voting rights advocates warned that changes Republican senators seek to impose on North Carolina put counties on track to dramatically shrink early voting locations and hours.
Under the Republicans’ proposal, Democratic and Republican legislative leaders would make equal appointments to local boards of election and the state Board of Elections.
Republicans said the remade elections boards would be forced to work toward compromises. Critics of the configuration say it will produce deadlocked votes that could lead to early voting access slashed to the bare minimum.
Early voting is the most popular form of voting in the state. In the 2020 general election held during the COVID-19 pandemic, 3.6 million people cast ballots during the early voting period, compared to about 1 million who mailed ballots, and about 900,000 who voted in person, according to state Board of Elections data.
In last year’s general election, about 2 million people voted early, about 1.6 million voted on election day and fewer than 200,000 voted by mail.
Counties are required to use their election headquarters or a building nearby for early voting during weekday office hours and on the Saturday before the election. Many counties make voting more convenient by establishing more locations, extended weekday hours, and weekend hours. For example, Wake County opened 15 early voting polling places every day of the week for last year’s general election.
Local boards must vote unanimously for early voting locations and hours above the minimum. In disagreements, individual county elections board members can ask the state Board of Elections to adopt alternative early voting plans.
Under the Republican proposal, if both the county and state elections board votes are tied, early voting would be available in one county location with one day of Saturday voting and no Sunday voting, voting rights groups said.
The limited option “endangers North Carolinians’ favorite way to vote, forces working voters to drive long distances, and produces overwhelmingly long lines during any available voting hours,” Sailor Jones, associate director of Common Cause North Carolina said at a news conference Wednesday.
The Republican bill opens early voting access to manipulation by both parties, with the possibility that elections board members would seek certain advantages depending on whether Democrats or Republicans are the majority in a particular county, Sen. Julie Mayfield, a Buncombe County Democrat, said Thursday.
The minority party in a county would have a huge incentive not to agree to an early voting plan and limit early voting for everyone, she said. Republicans across the state could decide to reject early voting plans, knowing that Democratic voters would be most inconvenienced, she said.
“I think your intent is to drive away from partisan decision-making, but I think there’s a huge incentive on this particular issue for there to be partisan decision-making, maybe on both sides,” Mayfield said.
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