Raleigh, N.C. — A Superior Court judge Friday gave voters in 36 counties hardest hit by Hurricane Matthew more time to register to vote for the upcoming election.
The North Carolina Democratic Party sued state elections officials Friday afternoon, hours ahead of when voter registration would have closed at 5 p.m. across the state. Voters in those counties will now have until 5 p.m. next Wednesday, Oct. 19, to register.
Judge Donald Stephens ruled just before the hour that Elections Director Kim Strach had "failed to correctly exercise her discretion" to extend that registration period in counties where flood waters swamped roads and made reaching local elections offices difficult, if not impossible.
Stephens said that he wrote down a five-word note to himself when he first received the case: "What would be the harm?"
Strach and Alexander Peters, a lawyer with the Attorney General's Office defending the state, said Strach had not explicitly rejected extending the early voting deadline. However, they pointed out it would place an extra burden on election officials preparing for the start of early voting on Oct. 20. They also pointed out that, if Strach took action without court approval, voters who registered during the extended period could be subject to having their votes challenged by those who objected to the extension.
John Wallace, a lawyer for the Democratic Party, argued that that the rights of voters outweigh any potential administrative headaches.
"It is important that the outcome here protect the interest of each and every voter whose lives have been disrupted," Wallace said.
In addition to Wallace, Marc Elias, general counsel to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, submitted documents relevant to the case.
Democrats had initially sought to extend voter registration throughout the state in a request to election officials Thursday and in court Friday.
But Stephens cited election statutes that granted Strach emergency powers only in "districts" affected by calamity.
State Republican Party officials opposed any extension of time. Tom Stark, a lawyer for the party, argued that there were already other safeguards in place to ensure that people in hurricane-affected areas could vote.
"We're concerned about the chaos that's created in counties by changing the rules," Stark said.
He was uncertain whether the GOP would appeal Stephens' ruling. A lawyer for the State Board of Elections said his agency would not appeal.
North Carolina's one-stop early voting period begins on Oct. 20 and runs for 17 days. During that period, people can register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day. However, if a voter wants to vote on Election Day, Nov. 8, they must be registered in advance.
Shannon Joseph, another lawyer for the Democratic Party, said that same-day registration was not enough. Some voters, she said, may want to register and vote by mail as well.
"It is misleading to say ... that early voting will alleviate this problem," she said.
The 36 counties in question were under a Federal Emergency Management Agency declaration. They include:
- New Hanover