Given the controversy leading up to Thursday’s State Board of Elections meeting, many were predicting a bit of a mess.
And for good reason.
First, a federal court invalidated large parts of NC election laws rewritten in 2013, including the cutting of early voting down to 10 days.
Then, as county election boards across the state tried to agree on local early voting plans last month, they came under pressure from the NC GOP to cut or prevent Sunday voting, cut back voting hours and limit the number of voting sites in places popular with Democratic voters and generally make party-line decisions for the good of the party.
Many of the conservative appointees to those boards did just that.
In 67 counties, the three-member boards of election were able to come to unanimous decisions on their early voting plans – sometimes, as in Guilford County, through a lot of pressure and protest.
In 33 counties – including large urban areas like Mecklenberg, Wake and Orange – the boards were split and sent multiple plans to the state board of election for a final decision.
But in Thursday’s marathon meeting – headed into its 9th hour as I write this from the board room – the board scrutinized the plans carefully, debated them thoroughly, compromised civilly and largely avoided the partisan bickering and back-biting that has characterized the process to this point.
There were a total of seven party line votes, with Democratic board members Joshua Malcolm and Maja Kricker lined up against Republicans Grant Whitney, Rhonda Amoroso and James Baker.
But there were also a number of unanimous votes, some 4-1 votes, compromise plans cobbled together by the board and several instances of Baker, who was appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory, joining the Democratic board members as a swing vote.
Acknowledging that Sunday voting – popular with black voters – has become a partisan fight, the board did not always vote for plans that added it this year.
The board tweaked the GOP majority’s plan in New Hanover County to add more early voting hours, for instance, but rejected the minority plan to add Sunday voting this year.
The board did restore Sunday voting in a number of places – such as Hoke County – where it existed but had been cut.
In its most high profile votes – large, urban counties where Democratic votes are most highly concentrated – the board voted to provide more and not fewer election hours and sites.
The board overruled the Wake County GOP majority plan, which Malcolm called “a train wreck.”
That’s because the plan would have opened just one site – the Wake County Board of Elections office – for voting during the first week of early voting. In that same week of early voting in 2012, more than 72,000 people cast ballots in Wake.
Traffic problems alone would make that plan unworkable, board members agreed, and adopted the minority plan in a 3-2 vote.
In the state’s largest county – Mecklenburg – the board approved a compromise plan in a 3-2 party-line vote that didn’t totally please any of the partisans in the room.
There will be 10 early voting sites in the first week of early voting – more than the 6 sites the GOP majority wanted but fewer than the 22 sought by the Democratic minority.
Malcolm – the board’s most vocal Democrat – said he couldn’t support the compromise and said it could become a “poster child for what not to do.”
In government geek speak, the state board appears to have functioned as the saucer that cools the coffee in this voting plan.
Board members were obviously aware their decisions Thursday would be under plenty of scrutiny, given the political controversy. They acknowledged it several times throughout the day.
When Malcolm said Democrats had not contacted him to apply any political pressure over voting plans because they know better, Baker said he hadn’t been pressured or lobbied either.
“I’m beginning to feel left out,” he joked.