What’s more important when it comes to early voting — more hours at the polls or more polling locations for better geographic access?
ProPublica’s Electionland took a stab Monday at trying to answer that question — responses at the legislative level varied by party affiliation; responses from election officials was nearly uniform in their discontent over a new law’s requirement for uniform polling hours across the state.
Senate Bill 325 sets uniform voting hours for all early voting sites across the state. As explained in this NC Policy Watch article, a county board office, at a minimum, must be open during regular business hours for the 17-day early voting period, which will run this year from Oct. 17 to Nov. 2.
Any other one-stop early voting sites in a county must be agreed upon unanimously by the county board of elections and must operate every weekday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. If any one-stop early voting site is open on a Saturday or Sunday, then all sites in that county must be open for the same number of hours. In addition, if any one-stop early voting site is open, all county sites must be open on that day.
Republicans claimed that the uniform hours would make early voting easier and more accessible, but election officials say there is more to it than that.
For many counties, the trade-off for more polling hours is fewer early voting locations. Take Gaston County, near Charlotte. In 2014, the county opened one main polling place at 8 a.m. and three additional ones at 10 a.m. According to Adam Ragan, the county’s nonpartisan director of elections, there are very few voters in the county eager to cast ballots early in the morning. The county, therefore, typically maximizes its resources by staggering voting hours across multiple locations.
“In elections administration, we have what we consider ‘non-usable hours,’” Ragan explained. “There are some locations where people won’t come at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. That’s why we’ve always opened our auxiliary sites at 10 a.m.”
The county originally planned to open five early voting locations, but with the new policy it can now only afford to operate three.
The organization’s analysis of polling locations shows that North Carolina’s 2018 midterm election will have nearly 20 percent fewer early voting locations than there were in 2014. Nearly half of North Carolina’s 100 counties are shutting down polling places, in part because of the new law, the article states.
Poorer rural counties, often strapped for resources to begin with, are having a particularly difficult time adjusting to the new requirement.
The law appears to have exacerbated the divide between urban and rural counties, putting a greater strain on poorer, less populous counties, which often have smaller budgets, fewer full-time employees and an older voting population that is less willing to volunteer for what could be a 12-hour poll worker shift.
Take Bladen County. When it approved its operating budget this year, election officials set aside funds for four early voting sites. Though sparsely populated, Bladen County is large — the state’s fourth biggest by area — and local election administrators wanted to provide ample access to voters across the region.
Their plan had precedent. In every statewide election over the past decade, Bladen voters could cast their ballots at one of four early voting locations spread out across the county. Now, with the strict hours requirement, Bladen County can only afford to staff and operate one early voting site.
“We’re a small county and the law has affected us pretty badly,” said Bobby Ludlum, the GOP chair of Bladen County’s Board of Elections.
You can read the full ProPublica report here.