UNPOPULAR VOTE: New Hanover County BOE votes on an early voting plan for 2016 election

Since the recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision overturned the controversial NC voter ID law, it also restored early voting to 17 days instead of the previously proposed 10. Despite adding a week, it dropped a requirement to open early polling sites for the same hours as the last presidential election, leaving local election boards to determine how many hours of early voting will be available this year.

AIN'T THAT A SHAME: NHC Board of Elections got an ear full from citizens after making an unpopular decision to adopt early voting hours for 2016, which won't extend polling hours to Sunday. Photo by SR Gentry
AIN’T THAT A SHAME: NHC Board of Elections got an ear full from citizens after making an unpopular decision to adopt early voting hours for 2016, which won’t extend polling hours to Sunday. Photo by SR Gentry

On Thurs., Aug. 18, the New Hanover County Board of Elections (BOE) met at the Government Center (230 Government Center Dr.) to hear public comments and vote on an early voting plan for the 2016 general election. Chairman Jonathan W. Washburn, secretary Jamie S. Getty and member and parliamentarian Thomas C. Pollard voted on a plan for NHC. They were joined by NHC BOE Elections director Derek Bowens, who submitted their choice to the State BOE on Aug. 19.

Public turnout was significant, with roughly 100 people packed the Government Center conference room. Voting rights advocates from the League of Women Voters of the Lower Cape Fear and Democracy NC were in attendance, and other community leaders and citizens were there to speak to the BOE. About 10 of 45 speakers urged BOE members to adopt plans with fewer early voting hours, while the rest advocated for more hours, including polling on Sundays.

Plan options outlined potential voting time periods from Oct. 20 to Nov. 5 at the Government Center, as well as four additional sites: CFCC Health Sciences-LRC, Northeast Regional Library, Senior Resource Center, and Carolina Beach Town Hall.

There were originally five proposed plans posted to the NHC Board of Elections website homepage. However, many folks were surprised to see a sixth plan had been added prior to the meeting—offering up the most restrictive early voting hours among the plans.

Option 1 was based on the 2012 early voting schedule. In it, polling hours would be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday—except for Sat., Nov. 5, when polls would close at 1 p.m. Total early voting hours: 580.

Option 2 hours were basically the same as Option 1, save for Nov. 3-5, which included an additional two hours each day at every site. Total hours: 610.

Option 3 offered early voting from 7 a.m. – 8 p.m. at the Government Center from Oct. 20 to Nov. 4, and 7 a.m.-1 p.m. on Nov. 5. However, the four additional voting sites would not open until Oct. 27, with polling hours from 8 a.m.-7 p.m. (except on Nov. 5). Total hours: 564.

Options 4 and 5 were the only two plans to offer Sunday polling hours. Each had Sunday polling hours at the Government Center, but not at additional polling sites. Option 4 total hours: 580. Option 5 total hours: 592.

Option 6 offered no Sunday polling hours or early voting at additional sites until Oct. 27. The newly added plan would cut down total early voting hours to 428 (26 percent less compared to 2012).

Getty favored Option 1 because “it worked before” in 2012. BOE board member Pollard said Option 1 didn’t reflect the growth of NHC and nontraditional schedules. “Not everybody can get off work from 9-5,” he said. “It’s banker’s hours, and people work all sorts of hours, and people work on Saturday.”

Washburn argued that having four extra sites open for the first week wasn’t necessary when they would be open for the final 10-day period. “It’s not about trying to suppress the right to vote, but at some point we have to vote on election day or close to it,” he said, “and [Option 6] is the best way of doing that.”

Pollard motioned for Option 5, with a few suggested modifications. With no seconds, it failed. Chairman Washburn moved for Option 6. Failed. Getty moved to adopt Option 1, which also failed initially. If they couldn’t come to an agreement, each member of the NHC BOE could submit a petition for a plan, and it would be left to the State BOE to decide which to implement. If there was no plan submitted then New Hanover would default to the baseline plan set by the state, which offers early voting during business hours at the Government Center only.

After several minutes of the three BOE members agreeing they didn’t want to end up with the state’s “default plan,” Washburn changed his vote in favor of Option 1. The final vote was 2-1 to adopt Option 1, after which a vocal and upset citizenry chanted “shame, shame” and a few used explicit language as they exited the room. Their dissatisfaction with the BOE’s decision has been echoed across North Carolina, too.

Jen Jones of Democracy NC said the last-minute addition of Option 6 sounded like a red herring tactic that’s been used before. Guilford and Mecklenburg counties, for example, where Republican BOE chairs initially proposed severe cuts to early voting to seemingly make other options look like a compromise.

“We’ve also observed equally extreme proposals at the opening of other meetings in our rural hubs—plans that would lead to long lines, mass confusion, and a train wreck for voters on and leading up to Election Day,” Jones said. “The intention seems clear: drop a plan that is clearly untenable and have any subsequent board discussion and adoption of early voting plans that are less extreme seem like a compromise that’s good for the community, despite representing cuts to the 2012 plans.”

Getty, who added Option 6 to the choices, said it came from requests she received via citizen emails, among other plans. “We had some that the Republicans wanted and some the Democrats wanted,” she said after the meeting. “It wasn’t what I was going to support, but the people wanted the option out there.” Bowens agreed it wasn’t a partisan decision. “I don’t believe it was just a ‘throw in,’” he said. “I believe there was logic behind adding it.”

Nevertheless, Jones said extra scrutiny over the matter is called for since recent emails were uncovered from members of the N.C. Republican Party that encouraged GOP appointees of county BOEs to “make party line changes to early voting.”

“We know many Republican board members have more respect for their oath than to be influenced by outside forces in determining when and where their communities can vote,” she clarified. “[But it] does cast doubt on the intentions of board members who bring these types of last-minute and dramatic cuts to the table during such an important election year—especially plans that so clearly target working people, young voters and voters of color.”

Bowens said there isn’t a set date for when the State BOE will decide on a final early voting plan for New Hanover County. For more details and updates on early voting or registering to vote before the October 14 deadline, visit http://www.elections.nhcgov.com.

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