Approved N Carolina early voting changes bring tense debate
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The General Assembly gave final legislative approval Friday to more changes to North Carolina’s early in-person voting laws that Republicans say promote election uniformity but Democrats argue again discourage black residents from voting.
The GOP-controlled House and Senate voted separately along party lines for legislation to adjust the 17-day early voting schedule by eliminating in-person voting on the Saturday before a primary or Election Day, ending it instead on the Friday before the election. The early voting period would now begin one day earlier.
GOP leaders pushing these and other scheduling changes say it will promote consistency in early voting statewide and within counties, and give election officials more time to prepare administratively for the traditional casting of ballots at precincts the following Tuesday.
More than 60 percent of all North Carolina voters voted early in the November 2016 election.
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,” Republican Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, who shepherded the bill, said before the 60-41 House vote. The Senate followed a few hours later with a 23-11 vote for the changes.
Democratic legislators say the bill would do away with a popular weekend day for workers to vote at the end of campaigns and used disproportionately by African American voters, according to election data. A requirement that county early voting sites must be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays will discourage cash-strapped counties from offering optional weekend voting, critics say.
“It will put a strain on local boards,” state Rep. Marcia Morey of Durham County said on the House floor, suggesting partisan intent behind the proposal. “We need local flexibility, not the strong arm of the state for political purposes to suppress the vote.”
The bill now goes to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, a vocal critic of election-related legislation authored by Republicans. Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner wrote in an email that the governor will review the bill and “has concerns about anything that could result in fewer opportunities for people to vote.”
Several advocacy groups urged Cooper to veto the measure. But a veto stands a good chance of getting overridden since Republicans have veto-proof majorities. House Minority Leader Darren Jackson of Wake County suggested another court challenge could be ahead.
Lingering distrust by Democrats and their allies of any GOP action after a wide-ranging 2013 election law got struck down by a federal appeals court added to the harshness of Friday’s debate. The court wrote the challenged provisions — which reduced early voting days from 17 to 10 and required photo identification to vote — “were enacted with racially discriminatory intent.”
“This General Assembly should not be in the business of taking away the freedoms of the people of this state and the United States,” said Guilford County Democratic Sen. Gladys Robinson, who is black.
Lewis, who helped author the 2013 law, said the proposal will actually give more options and times for voters to cast ballots early, pointing out current law requires voting to end on the last Saturday at 1 p.m.
Lewis and other Republicans have said the 2016 ruling of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals striking down the law was politically tainted. The U.S. Supreme Court let the 4th Circuit ruling stand the following year. Chief Justice John Roberts cited the internal squabble between the legislative branch, Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein over who represented the state’s interests in the case, and not necessarily the content of the law.
A little over half of the 100 county election boards didn’t have uniform days or hours during the last midterm election in November 2014, according to election reform group Democracy North Carolina. According to Republicans, this kind of inconsistency has discouraged voting.
“This past election, people were so confused,” said Rep. Carl Ford of Rowan County, adding he predicted the bill would increase turnout. The bill also would require counties that offer the option of Saturday or Sunday voting to keep opening and closing times identical at each of their sites.