Raleigh, N.C. — Wake County voters will have more choices of polling places during the first seven days of early voting following a ruling from the State Board of Elections Thursday afternoon.
The ruling came roughly seven hours after members of the state board began picking their way through decisions on how many locations and hours voters in 33 North Carolina counties will have to cast in-person early ballots. The whole process lasted about 12 hours.
Early voting begins Thursday Oct. 20 and closes Saturday Nov. 5.
"I am very pleased," said Mark Ezzell, the lone Democrat on Wake County's three-member board of elections. The two Republican members did not attend the state board meeting.
Those two Republican members, Eddie Woodhouse and Ellis Boyle, voted earlier this year for an early voting plan that opened 17 sites during the final 10 days of the early voting period. But during the first seven days of early voting, that GOP-favored "majority plan" would have opened only the downtown Wake County Board of Elections office for voting.
Ezzell and his lawyer, Press Millen, told the state board that, during the same seven-day time period in 2012, more than 72,000 Wake County voters cast early ballots.
That argument held sway with at least three state board members.
"I can't vote in clear conscience with the majority plan when I know it's a train wreck," state board member Joshua Malcolm said.
The final vote was 3-2, with Malcolm, fellow Democrat Maja Kricker and Republican Jim Baker backing the expanded plan. Republicans Rhonda Amoroso and Chairman Grant Whitney voted against it.
In addition to the downtown elections board office, Ezzell's plan sprinkles eight sites throughout the county, some in Republican strongholds.
Sunday voting key throughout the day
Court orders tossed out major parts of a 2013 state election law rewrite. While lawmakers had sought to ratchet down the early voting period to 10 days, the result of the court case means North Carolina will have a 17-day early voting period.
In August, three-member county boards of elections came to unanimous decisions on how to handle that expanded early voting period in 67 counties. But in 33, including Wake, Cumberland and Orange counties, board members were at odds.
The board received 1,783 comments on the plans in advance of Thursday's meeting, including 624 from Wake County and 166 from Orange County.
Painting with a broad brush, Democrats have generally favored expanding early voting, particularly on Sundays.
The state board has the option of choosing to impose the plans passed 2-1 by local boards, adopting the alternate plans put forward by the dissenting members or crafting its own plans.
Throughout much of the day, the most hotly contested conversations focused on whether to add Sunday voting hours when the original proposals left them out.
"People work diverse hours. People work nights. Sunday is an opportunity for people who don't get out," said Zeda Trice, the Democratic member of the Craven County Board of Elections.
At her urging, the state board added Sunday hours in her county.
But the board did not adopt a blanket approach. For example, in New Hanover County, where 44 percent of Sunday voters were African-Americans during the March primary, the state board adopted a plan with no Sunday voting hours. It did expand weekday hours at the urging of the county's Democratic member.
Sunday voting also was restored in Cumberland County, while Saturday hours were extended in Orange County.
Baker of the state board said he wanted to do what would make sense for each county.
"I'm not opposed to Sunday voting," he said, "but if they decided Sunday voting is not for them, I don't have any problem with that decision."
Prior to the meeting, some Republicans expressed skepticism about the need for a big expansions. Members of the state board said they received a letter from Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, and Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, urging the board to tack on only the minimum required for the expanded seven-day period.
Democracy North Carolina, a left-leaning voter advocacy group, noted that 56 percent of voters cast early ballots statewide in 2012, so enough early voting needs to be available to avoid crushing lines at polling sites on Election Day.
"The Republicans – the leadership of the Republicans – have tried to manipulate the county plans," said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina. "They've encouraged their members to get rid of Sunday voting where it existed before, eliminate sites on campuses, reduce sites that helped Democrats and add sites to help Republicans."
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director the North Carolina Republican Party, said he understands early voting is convenient, but he said it can also be dangerous.
"An important part of the democratic process is having election monitors – having people watch the polls, making sure no side is doing something they shouldn't," Woodhouse said. "When it goes on a long time, that gets harder to do."