Raleigh, N.C. — Showdowns over when voters in Wake, Cumberland and Orange counties will be able to cast early in-person votes are getting ready to head to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
County boards of elections have had to scramble in recent weeks to revamp their early voting plans due to a recent court decision. The same ruling the tossed out North Carolina's voter ID law also did away with provisions that limited early in-person voting to 10 days.
Due to the ruling, North Carolina's one-stop voting period will revert to the same 17-day period that existed in 2012, beginning on Thursday, Oct. 20, and running through Saturday, Nov. 5.
While three-member elections boards in at least 64 counties crafted plans they passed unanimously, others split 2-1 over their plans or have been unable to come to any sort of agreement, meaning the State Board of Elections will have the final say. Individual members of those boards will be able to offer competing plans that either expand or curtail early voting hours.
The state board has not scheduled its meeting to sift through competing early voting options, but Thursday marks a key deadline for members from all but one county to file their proposals. Its decision will determine how much time and how many locations voters will be able to choose from in advance of Election Day and will be closely watched due to accusations of partisan efforts to dial back ballot access.
"We know these elections are going to be bursting at the seams," said Mark Ezzell, a Democrat on the Wake County Board of Elections who disagreed with the plan passed by the two Republicans on the county board.
That plan would have only one voting site during the first seven days of early voting, expanding to 19 sites for the last 10 days. Ezzell said he plans to submit a scheme that would open between seven and 10 locations during the first seven days of early voting.
2012 Wake County early voting by day
"I think that, by not opening up early voting broadly during that first week, we're going to limit the options voters are going to have and increase the likelihood of exceedingly long lines on Election Day," Ezzell said.
In North Carolina, county boards run elections with oversight from the state. In general, state elections officials have encouraged counties to open early voting as broadly as practical.
"We strongly encourage county boards of elections to be mindful of expected turnout and historical use of one-stop early voting in their respective counties," state Elections Director Kim Strach wrote in a Aug. 4 memo to counties. "Statewide historical data indicates that roughly 56 percent of all voters this election will use one-stop early voting, which will reduce lengthy lines on Election Day."
Long lines were a problem in Durham County and Mecklenburg County during the March primary, and this year's general election is a high-interest affair with hotly contested races for president, governor and U.S. senator leading the ballot.
In Durham County, Democratic board member Dawn Baxton says she's happy with county's early voting plan, and she won't offer an alternative. Yet, a messier picture has emerged elsewhere. Orange County will offer four different plans – one compromise measure and three different plans submitted by each of the board members. The two Republican-offered plans would dial back early voting hours.
"It is disappointing that a majority of Elections Board members would support alternative plans that could potentially reduce the number of hours that were approved just last week, especially after a good faith compromise vote in full view of the public," Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Matt Hughes said in a written release.
In Cumberland County, the local board of elections has failed to pass any plan, although it's possible individual members could recommend their own or that members could come up with a last-minute compromise.
Those and other cases will leave the three Republicans and two Democrats on the state board to make decisions about early voting in dozens of counties.
"I don't think there's been a tradition of heavy-handed partisanship at the state board on the rulings about early voting," said Bob Hall, director of Democracy North Carolina, a group that advocates for greater voting access. "They've got a tradition of bipartisan evaluation that they need to live up to."
Hall said it would be "jarring" if they merely approved any plan signed off on by two Republicans on the local board.
He pointed out that 2.5 million voters used straight-ticket voting in 2012. That option, which sped the process of filling out ballots, will not be available this year, and voters will require more time at the ballot box to tick off their choices.
An email last week from state Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse led many to claim the GOP was angling to cut down access to early voting across the state. In an interview Wednesday, he said that wasn't true, adding that the GOP was promoting early voting to its voters.
"We have 100 counties, and they're all different," Woodhouse said, pointing out that extending hours in certain counties could be advantageous to the party. He added that "all decision about voting changes are partisan," and said that when Democrats controlled the election machinery, they used their power to create situations favorable to their party.
"Republicans have as much right to weigh in on early voting procedures and make partisan decisions that are within the law," he said.