Raleigh, N.C. — The House Elections Committee heard from a Florida official Wednesday who said that curtailing early voting hours during the 2012 election led to long lines on Election Day.
"It was a nightmare," said Ion Sancho, supervisor of elections in Leon County, Fla.
Sancho and Brian Kemp, Georgia's secretary of state, were invited to speak mainly about how voter identification requirements are handled in their states.
Florida cut back early voting from 14 days to eight days in 2012. Lawmakers in the House and Senate have filed bills that would curtail early voting in North Carolina.
For example, House Bill 451, filed by Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, would cut North Carolina's early voting period by a week, to roughly 10 days, and outlaw early voting on Sundays.
Sancho said that lawmakers in Florida have taken up a bill to both restore the early voting period to a full two weeks and allow for Sunday voting.
Florida counties haven't been able to open enough voting-day locations to keep up with population growth, he said, calling early voting "our safety valve."
Reducing early voting led to Election Day wait times of 45 minutes, on average. The last voter in the state cast a ballot after 2 a.m. on Wednesday, the day after polls formally closed.
"Early voting is where the extra voters have to go," Sancho said. "That's the only way we can accommodate them."
Starnes said he was surprised to hear about Sancho's testimony. He sits on the House Elections Committee but had to leave the hearing before Sancho started his presentation.
"I'd like to know more about what went on in Florida, because it sounds to me like it was more incompetence of people who are running the system. If they just cut it down from 14 to eight days, I can't imagine that would cause a line to be eight hours long," Starnes said. "That's just inconceivable."
Starnes said he filed his bill to make the process run more smoothly. Shortening the time, he said, would let election officials attract more qualified election workers, noting that the prolonged early voting period keeps many people from volunteering to work at the polling places.
He said that the push-back to his bill from groups like the NAACP has surprised him. The groups say the legislation is an attempt to suppress votes by Democratic-leaning people.
"My attempt was not to deny anyone the right to vote. It was just to make the process work efficiently," Starnes said. "I was frankly just surprised that the blacks took it as an attempt to suppress their vote because that was never my intent at all."
Voter ID praised
Both Sancho and Kemp said that voter ID has been successful in their states.
In Georgia, Kemp said, the state adopted voter ID requirements in 2006. Since that time, Georgia has issued 29,611 free IDs, which are issued to voters who don't have and can't afford other forms of identification.
The bulk of those IDs were issued for the 2008 election, Kemp said. Georgia has more than 6 million registered voters.
Noting that opponents to North Carolina's voter ID proposal have said 600,000 voters statewide don't have a photo ID, Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, said, “I find it fascinating that, apparently, the people of North Carolina are 20 times more likely not to have an ID than the people of Georgia.”
Georgia has spent $1.7 million to date to purchase equipment for its 159 counties to make IDs and on public education campaigns about the ID requirement, Kemp said.
Jones also noted how that cost is much lower than the estimates put forth by ID opponents in North Carolina.
The committee is scheduled to hold a second public hearing on voter ID at 4 p.m. April 10. More than 100 people signed up to speak at a four-hour hearing last month.
House Republicans said they will pass a voter ID requirement this year.
Sancho said that his county has not had to turn away many voters as a result of voter ID requirements. Rather, he said, voters showing up at the wrong precinct is a much bigger issue. As for whether voter ID prevents fraud, Sancho said that was not the case.
The vast majority of fraudulent behavior around elections, he said, involves two circumstances: "absentee ballots and individuals manufacturing voter registration so they get paid for collecting signatures."