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Early voting bill approved by House, despite fierce debate

Friday morning’s House debate on a controverisal early voting bill led to arguments about previous voting-related lawsuits, long-standing political grudges and more than a century of partisan back-and-forth on race, voting and good governance.

While the House ultimately approved the bill 61-40, the debate will be taken up in the Senate and – should it become law over an assumed veto by Gov. Roy Cooper — will likely carry on in the courts.

At issue: Senate Bill 325, a measure introduced when a completely unrelated bill was gutted near midnight on Wednesday and replaced with serious changes to early voting, over which Democrats and Republicans have been fighting in and out of the courts for several years. Among the changes the bill would make:

  • Early voting would begin on Wednesday, Oct. 17 and end Friday, Nov. 2. That would eliminate the final Saturday of early voting — the most popular early voting day, especially among Black voters in North Carolina. In 2014, 103,513 voters voted on that day and in 2016 it was 193,138. Unlike Election Day, early voting is a “one stop” period in which people can register to vote on the same day.
  • All early voting sites would have to have uniform hours — 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. — during weekday early voting. While weekend voting could differ from those hours, all sites would still have to have uniform hours. Right now county election boards have the flexibility to determine early voting hours based on past experience and expected traffic.

“What we set out to do was make it more reliable and dependable,” said Rep.David Lewis (R-Harnett), the bill’s sponsor. “The voters in a county would know that their early voting site was open from a certain time to a certain time for 17 days.”

But by mandating the hours of all early voting sites, Democratic lawmakers countered, the legislature will force counties to find more volunteers willing to work longer hours and the funding to run all of their early voting sites for twelve hour shifts every day. Those that cannot will likely have to scale back early voting sites, as several county board of election are already indicating they will have to do to comply with the bill.

“This bill does not expand early voting,” said Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Wake), the minority leader. “It gives counties the ability to do so at a much higher cost than they current incur. In that way it’s a huge unfunded mandate.”

“To my knowledge not one single board of elections asked for this bill,”  Jackson said. “Not one board of elections was asked to weigh in on this bill.”

Indeed, on Thursday the Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement sent a letter to Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) asking that lawmakers give them at least 24 hours’ notice before introducing legislation that will impact the elections they have to run.

Lewis dismissed the board’s letter Friday, saying he didn’t believe board Chairman Andy Penry, an attorney, has any elections expertise.

Rep. Henry Michaux (D-Durham) argued mandating hours of operation takes flexibility away from local boards who know best when their voting sites are busy, when they are not and how many their county needs.

“Don’t you think the people in their own communities know…waht the standards in those particular communities are?” Michaeux said. “Don’t you think they know what is best for the rules and operations for those communities?”

Several Democratic lawmakers alluded to the way in which the bill would impact Black voters, who disproportionately vote on the Saturday before an election – when, they said, the campaign is the hottest. Having been dealt defeats in federal court in which their voting laws were found to target Black voters, House Democrats argued, does the General Assembly really want to wade back into that fight?

Lewis and other Republicans rejected this criticism, saying they found a 2016 federal federal court ruling that they had “”target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” to be inflammatory and not the final word on the case, which the Supreme Court declined to take up in May.

Lewis blamed Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, both Democrats, for asking to withdraw the appeal to the Supreme Court after unseating their Republican predecessors last year.

The early voting bill, passed on Thursday, will now move to the Senate, where lawmakers are already gearing up for a similar debate.

 

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