In June, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation mandating that all early voting sites in the state remain open for uniform hours on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., a move supporters argued would reduce confusion and ultimately make early voting easier and more accessible.
But with the start of early voting only weeks away, county election officials across the state — who previously had control over setting polling hours in their jurisdictions — say the new law has hamstrung their ability to best serve voters. Some officials in rural counties say they’ve had to shrink the number of early voting locations to accommodate the law’s longer hour requirements and stay within their budgets.
A ProPublica analysis of polling locations shows that North Carolina’s 2018 midterm election will have nearly 20 percent fewer early voting locations than there were in 2014. Nearly half of North Carolina’s 100 counties are shutting down polling places, in part because of the new law. Poorer rural counties, often strapped for resources to begin with, are having a particularly difficult time adjusting to the new requirement.
The closure of polling locations increases the time it takes for voters to travel to the polls, and it could result in lower turnout, making matters worse for a state already dealing with Hurricane Florence. Early voting in North Carolina begins on Oct. 17.
We interviewed more than two dozen county election officials across North Carolina. None said they were in favor of the new law, and none said they were contacted by state lawmakers for counsel on the legislation. Some referred to the policy as “overkill,” a waste of resources and an “unfunded mandate,” particularly burdensome for cash-strapped counties.
“We know our county. We know when most people go to vote early. The 12-hour, 7-a.m.-to-7-p.m. requirement just ties our hands when coming up with a catered approach that fits our county best,” said Steve Stone, the Republican chair of the Robeson County Board of Elections.
Republican state lawmakers, who championed the new law, argue that the consistency it provides will eliminate uncertainty among voters and expand early voting by increasing hours and allowing those who work full-time jobs to vote before or after work.
“The purpose of the uniformity is to make it easier and more convenient and more accessible for the voter to participate,” said David Lewis, a state representative who supported the bill. “I think that access to the polls, access to the ballots in a uniform fashion, is more important than poll worker or election worker convenience.”
Lewis says the law has led to an increase in the number of aggregate polling hours across the state. Indeed, polls for early voting will be open 49,696 hours in 2018, a substantial jump from the 25,887 hours offered in 2014, according to a preliminary analysis from the North Carolina State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement.
But according to Robert Stein, a professor of political science at Rice University, aggregate hours are not nearly as important a factor to voter access as the number of early voting locations offered by a county.
“There is a lot of good research to suggest that when it comes to having a positive effect on early voting turnout, the important things are not the hours of operation but the location of the polling place and the distance and travel time it takes a voter to get there,” Stein said.
For many counties, the trade-off for more polling hours is fewer early voting locations. Take Gaston County, near Charlotte. In 2014, the county opened one main polling place at 8 a.m. and three additional ones at 10 a.m. According to Adam Ragan, the county’s nonpartisan director of elections, there are very few voters in the county eager to cast ballots early in the morning. The county, therefore, typically maximizes its resources by staggering voting hours across multiple locations.
“In elections administration, we have what we consider ‘non-usable hours,’” Ragan explained. “There are some locations where people won’t come at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. That’s why we’ve always opened our auxiliary sites at 10 a.m.”
The county originally planned to open five early voting locations, but with the new policy it can now only afford to operate three.
While county election officials from both parties have expressed near uniform discontent over the new requirements, state lawmakers were split along partisan lines on the measure, with support coming exclusively from GOP lawmakers.
“It will put a strain on local boards,” Democratic Rep. Marcia Morey said on the floor of the North Carolina House of Representatives. “We need local flexibility, not the strong arm of the state for political purposes to suppress the vote.”
North Carolina’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper originally vetoed the bill, writing in a statement that “we should be making it easier for people to vote, not harder,” but GOP state lawmakers have veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and handily overrode the veto.
In addition to setting uniform polling hours, the original legislation also eliminated the final Saturday of early voting, a day that historically attracts a large number of black voters, opening legislators up to further charges of voter suppression.
Republican lawmakers subsequently backed off on this and restored the popular voting day. Lewis acknowledged the move was a mistake, though he said it had been proposed to give counties more time prepare for Election Day. Still, given the sordid history of voting rights violations in North Carolina, many Democrats remain skeptical of GOP lawmakers’ dedication to expanding access to early voting.
“I do not see it as an isolated event, but rather a part of a larger voter suppression effort,” said Al Daniels, a Democratic member of the Bladen County Board of Elections, of the uniform-hours law. “I see it as anti-voter, period.”
In 2013, the GOP-led General Assembly passed far-reaching legislation in the name of combating voter fraud that cut back on early voting, established a photo ID requirement and did away with pre-registration of high school students, same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting. A federal appeals court struck down the law, labeling it an unconstitutional attempt to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
The 2013 law was passed in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which weakened a provision of the Voting Rights Act that had required a handful of jurisdictions — including parts of North Carolina — to submit voting law changes to the federal government to determine whether those changes had a discriminatory effect or purpose. Now, laws like North Carolina’s uniform-voting legislation don’t need to be given preclearance from the federal government before they can take effect.
“Given the context of the GOP legislature, it makes you want to raise your eyebrows that this just wasn’t some neutral requirement to have consistent voting hours around the state,” said Philip Lehman, the Democratic vice chair of Durham County’s Board of Elections and a former member of the state’s General Assembly.
Other arguments in favor of the law have only advanced suspicion of lawmakers’ motives. State Sen. Ralph Hise, one of a dozen Republican sponsors of the bill, said in an interview with ProPublica that the law was meant, in part, to rein in partisan maneuvering on county election boards. He said that, in previous elections, certain counties would strategically leave specific early voting sites open for longer to “impact the election.” When asked to provide an example of such conduct, during the interview and subsequently, however, Hise did not do so.
The new law came as a surprise to many local election officials who had already finalized their budgets. Elections in North Carolina, unlike some other states, are funded entirely at the county level, leaving some administrators scrambling to figure out how to work within the confines of their budgets while accommodating the new law.
“I’m a full-fledged Republican and a Republican supporter, and I’m just disappointed in the General Assembly for not reaching out to election officials in the state and asking, ‘What do you think would work well for this early voting law?’” said Stone, the chair of the Robeson County Board of Elections.
The law appears to have exacerbated the divide between urban and rural counties, putting a greater strain on poorer, less populous counties, which often have smaller budgets, fewer full-time employees and an older voting population that is less willing to volunteer for what could be a 12-hour poll worker shift.
Take Bladen County. When it approved its operating budget this year, election officials set aside funds for four early voting sites. Though sparsely populated, Bladen County is large — the state’s fourth biggest by area — and local election administrators wanted to provide ample access to voters across the region.
Their plan had precedent. In every statewide election over the past decade, Bladen voters could cast their ballots at one of four early voting locations spread out across the county. Now, with the strict hours requirement, Bladen County can only afford to staff and operate one early voting site.
“We’re a small county and the law has affected us pretty badly,” said Bobby Ludlum, the GOP chair of Bladen County’s Board of Elections.
Wealthier, more populous counties appear to be doing better at weathering the changes. Still, election officials acknowledged that the law may adversely affect their rural counterparts.
“One size does not necessarily fit all,” said Michael Dickerson, the nonpartisan director of elections in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina’s most populous. “I’m very fortunate in this county. I’ve got over a million people living here, so we can find poll workers.”
The legislation has contributed to an already chaotic and uncertain year for election administrators in North Carolina. In addition to the difficulties they will encounter getting elections up and running in a state dealing with a major natural disaster, election officials are still scrambling to deal with man-made crises. A federal court in late August ruled that the state’s congressional maps were unconstitutionally gerrymandered and ordered they be redrawn immediately, sparking widespread confusion among election officials on whether the general election would move forward as planned. The court later clarified that the current maps should be used for the coming election.
A separate series of court battles over ballot language delayed the preparation and printing of election ballots, and the reduced timeline has left little flexibility in case ballots need to be reprinted. Adding to all of this, federal prosecutors in early September issued subpoenas to 44 county election boards asking that millions of voter records be handed over to immigration authorities by the end of the month.
While North Carolina has a handful of consequential congressional races in this fall’s election — the Cook Political Report rates four as competitive — most officials who spoke to ProPublica worry about how the early-voting changes and other laws might affect 2020, when the swing state will vote for president, governor and senator.
“It seems that every time we have an election, the rules are different,” said Jake Quinn, a Democratic member of the Buncombe County Board of Elections.
“We’re looking at different district boundaries, or we have to have voter IDs, or you can’t vote out of precinct, or the hours have to be changed. This is a problem. When you change the rules for voting every single election, some people are going to get discouraged by that,” he said. “All of this is very destabilizing.”