State News

State elections board wants to extend early-voting hours

Posted October 30, 2008 11:47 a.m. EDT
Updated October 30, 2008 6:20 p.m. EDT

— The State Board of Elections has ordered all 100 counties in North Carolina to hold emergency meetings to consider keeping early voting sites open later this weekend.

In an emergency meeting Thursday, the state board unanimously agreed to extend Saturday early voting by four hours until 5 p.m. The meeting came after Mecklenburg and Guilford counties sought permission to keep the sites from closing at 1 p.m. as scheduled.

"It's because of the volume of voters and the length of reported lines in some areas," Johnnie Mclean, deputy director of the state elections board, said.

Nearly 1.7 million people – or 30 percent of registered voters – cast a ballot at one-stop sites through Wednesday night.

Some voters in a long line at a Raleigh early-voting site Thursday were philosophical about the wait, while others were determined to make it through.

"I don't want to wait in line later. Well, I'm waiting in line now, but I heard the earlier, the better," voter Meredith Hurley said, adding that she approved of extending hours. "Especially seeing this line like this, I think it would be a great way to cut down more. The more, the better."

"It doesn't matter if I have to go to several places; I just want to get my vote in," said Brenda Branch, who had waited in lines at three one-stop voting sites.

County election boards must hold emergency meetings to decide if they will push the closing time back Saturday. Wake, Durham, Orange, Franklin and Moore county boards announced that they will meet Friday.

County boards must vote unanimously to keep from extending voting hours. If even one member thinks extended hours are necessary, then the closing time will be pushed back. They can also vote unanimously to keep the polls open for less than the suggested extra four hours.

The cost of keeping polls open longer will also be a factor in counties' decisions.

"Obviously, if you have to have precinct officials and polling place officials working extra hours then, yes, it's going to cost more money," Mclean said.

Forty counties must also get approval from the federal Department of Justice to change voting times. Mclean said the justice department would expedite the request and she did not expect the process to create any issues for voters.

Early voting has been a sensitive subject for Republicans this year, because so far, more Democrats have gone to the polls, drawn in part by the Obama campaign's extensive efforts. According to an Associated Press-GfK poll released this week, 59 percent of early voters supported Obama and 33 percent, McCain.

Larry Leake, the Democratic chairman of the state elections board, first proposed allowing counties to decide whether they wanted to extend polling hours. Republican Charles Winfree questioned whether office-seekers could manipulate county boards controlled by Democrats.

"I'm concerned that some counties will and some counties won't, and that will be manipulated by the campaigns. They will hold them open later in Democratic counties, and then will close them early in Republican counties," Winfree said.

So, the board agreed to extend the mandate to all 100 counties, allowing them to opt out only if all members of county election boards agree.

Gov. Mike Easley expressed his approval of the mandate. "I commend the Board of Elections for extending early voting hours, so that everybody registered can vote," he said in a statement.

Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP chapter, applauded the extended hours on Saturday and asked for the state to open more voting sites on Election Day.

However, Gary Bartlett, director of the state elections board, said that it would be impossible to add more sites for Tuesday at this late date.

Three hundred sixty-six one-stop voting sites were opened statewide; nearly 3,000 polling places will be open on Election Day, Bartlett said.

Despite those numbers, election officials said voters should be prepared for long lines at any time.

"Anybody who thinks they're going be able to vote anywhere and not wait more than 15 minutes is probably fooling themselves," Mclean said.