Raleigh, N.C. — Anyone planning to cast an early ballot in North Carolina's upcoming primary needs to schedule carefully.
As part of a sweeping elections law that lawmakers passed last year, early voting has been shortened from 17 to 10 days. For the May 6 primary, early voting runs from April 24 through May 3.
Republican lawmakers who backed the provision say there's still plenty of time for everyone who wants to vote to cast their ballots, but critics say the move is just an attempt to make it harder to vote.
"There are a lot of ups and downs, and the thought was that we don't really need quite as many days," said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, one of the main sponsors of the elections law.
In the 2012 general election, 57 percent of the votes cast in North Carolina were on early ballots, including 20 percent cast during the first week of the early voting period that no longer will be provided.
To soften the cut, lawmakers said counties would have to provide the same number of hours of early voting in 10 days that they used to offer in 17 either by staying open longer or opening more early voting sites.
"By reducing the number of days but keeping the same number of hours, we might actually get more one-stop voting sites," Lewis said.
Extra sites cost extra money to operate, however, and some counties can't afford it. Thirty-eight of North Carolina's 100 counties – mostly rural, mostly poor – were granted waivers to offer fewer early voting hours for the primary.
Voter turnout in primaries is always lighter than in general elections, especially in mid-term elections such as this year. But Anita Earls, a lawyer for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is challenging the elections law in court, warned that some early voters could still find long lines later this month because of the shorter early voting period.
"We have alleged that it was intentionally designed to discourage turnout by African-American voters in this state because the data show that they disproportionately made use of early voting," Earls said.
Republicans strongly deny any discriminatory motives and defend the voting changes as fair to all voters.