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General Assembly passes two fixes to new early voting law

After hearing complaints from constituents and elections officials across the state, the General Assembly amended a hastily passed new early voting law Thursday as the legislative session draws to a close.

House Bill 335 — which gutted an unrelated bill to replace it with fixes to the early voting law passed last week — makes two important changes.

The new bill, introduced and passed in both the House and Senate Thursday, restores the possibility of a last Saturday of early voting before Election Day. It requires counties to conduct one-stop early voting from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on the final Saturday before an election. It allows them to do so until 5 p.m.

That Saturday is wildly popular with those who vote early — especially Black voters.

In 2014, 103,513 voters voted on the last 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.

During the House debate,  Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) justified the removal of the popular last Saturday by saying it gave elections offices and elections workers a break to prepare for a busy Election Day.

That’s a break most offices don’t need, elections directors across the state said after the law was passed. They usually have the flexibility to set their hours and staffing levels where they need them to deal with Election Day and early voting as their county finds necessary.

The original law mandated 17 days of early voting, each lasting from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., which will cause serious problems for the budgets of some county boards of elections.

Presenting the new bill before the Senate Thursday, Lewis said the Republican majority had considered objections made by Democrats during fierce debates and decided to make a change.

“I will say that during the debate on expanding the early voting options in our state we did listen,” Lewis said. “The last Saturday is important — that was made clear in the debate and the subsequent research I have done.”

Last week the elections director in Hyde County told Policy Watch she would likely have to close one of the county’s two early voting sites in order to afford the changes. That site would be on Ocracoke, the small island that lies two hours and forty-five minutes away by ferry.

The bill passed Thursday solves that specific problem by allowing flexibility in the mandated early voting hours for a county if:

(1) It has permanent inhabitation of residents residing in an unincorporated area.

(2) It is bounded on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by a coastal sound.

(3) It contains either a National Wildlife Refuge or a portion of a National  Seashore.

(4) It has no bridge access to the mainland of the county and is only accessible by marine vessel.

But as some lawmakers pointed out, the Ocracoke-specific fix does nothing for other small, rural communities who will be squeezed into shutting down some early voting sites.

“We do appreciate the fact that we do get our Saturday voting back,” said Rep. Bobbie Richardson (D-Franklin). “But in rural North Carolina we’re still going to face a hardship.”

“We wish we had been able to alter those hours so our board of elections will not be taxed or we’re in a position where we can’t find someone to man our posts 12 hours a day,” Richardson said.

Rep. Mickey Michaux (D-Durham) was more blunt in his appraisal of the fix.

“What happened?” Michaux asked Lewis. “You get a guilty conscience?”

Lewis said no.

“This process works,” Lewis said. “When people stand up and advocate for what they believe in, people listen to them  — especially when they speak in a rational tone and one that folks can understand.”

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