Early voting bill stirs controversy among watchdogs, Board of Elections

An elections bill filed late Wednesday night and approved by a House committee Thursday morning is causing chaos and concern among state elections officials and watchdog groups.

The new version of Senate Bill 325, which until today was a bill dealing with tax policy, would change early voting, a political and legal flashpoint in the state, in a number of fundamental ways.

Most controversially:

  • 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. 

Presenting the bill during the House committee meeting, Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) said it would provide greater access and uniformity during early voting.

Critics of the proposal disagree. They say mandatory 12 hour shifts at voting sites on weekdays will likely be difficult for some counties to sustain with volunteers already hard to come by. This will likely result in fewer sites, they said.

Greg Flynn, chairman of the Wake County Board of Elections, was on hand to make that point at Thursday’s House committee hearing. He told lawmakers the board is already beginning to plan sites and times. A change of this sort could make that harder, he said.

Flynn took to Twitter throughout the day to comment on the bill and what it would mean for those who organize and volunteer during elections.

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC, criticized both the process and the effect. “A bill introduced near midnight and rushed through a committee process the next morning could have a major impact on voters’ rights,” Phillips said in a statement.

“Early voting has been widely used by voters of all parties,” Phillips said. “Over the past several elections, hundreds of thousands of ballots have been cast on the final Saturday of early voting. These proposed changes would especially hurt African-American voters, who have utilized early voting at a higher rate than other groups. The result of this senseless bill would be fewer options for voters, confusion among the public and increased barriers to the polls.”

Democracy North Carolina’s Executive Director Tomas Lopez agreed.
“Once again, politicians in Raleigh are coming back for a second bite at voting restrictions first introduced and overturned by a federal court in 2013, without input from election officials and the public,” Lopez said in a statement Thursday.

“This latest proposal not only eliminates the popular, final Saturday of early voting, disproportionately used by African-American voters, but also creates onerous requirements that will put a strain on county election officials, disincentivize weekend early voting access, and reduce voters’ options to cast a ballot. In addition, it requires that counties report on their list maintenance activity, paving the way for future voter purges.”

The lack of input from state election officials was also a problem for the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. An emergency meeting of the board was called at the same time the bill was being debated in a House committee Thursday morning.

The board members and staff said they were given no advanced warning of the legislation and that lawmakers had not reached out to them for input on the specifics of the bill before it was filed

Board Chairman Andy Penry said it shouldn’t have happened that way.

“It’s in the best interest of our board that it be able to give its expertise in fields that have been given to us,” Penry said. “We need to assert our expertise so that the General Assembly can benefit from it.”

The board voted Thursday afternoon to send a letter to the General Assembly requesting 24 hours’ notice when it is going to introduce legislation that will impact elections that the board will have to administer.

The text of that letter:

Dear President Pro Tempore Berger and Speaker Moore:

The Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement wishes to assist the General Assembly in its review of proposals affecting the administration of elections, lobbying, and ethics laws. To do so productively, members of the State Board request that each Chamber provide notice of legislation at least 24 hours prior to the public introduction of any measure affecting areas administered by the agency. The State Board is mindful of the meaningful distinction between your role and ours under the Constitution and appreciates your consideration of this request.

J. Anthony Penry

Chair, State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement

Board Vice Chairman Joshua Malcolm stressed that while the board didn’t wish to wade into a political fight, it has a role to play in elections and should at least be consulted when sweeping changes are in the works.

“It is an executive agency’s responsibility to routinely provide the legislative branch of any government feedback on any legislation,” Malcolm said.

“It’s in the best interest of our board that it be able to give its expertise in fields that have been given to us,” Penry said. “We need to assert our expertise so that the General Assembly can benefit from it.”

Board member Stella Anderson said she did not consider the board’s letter to be political.

“It’s an important issue,” Anderson said. “It’s an important bill the legislature has under consideration. I believe it’s our responsibility to provide our expertise and the state board staff’s expertise on something that’s going to change early voting in our state.”

What is political, Anderson said, is lawmakers proposing major changes of this sort without consulting experts and the very people tasked with running elections in the state.

Two board members, John Lewis and Stacy Eggers, voted against the board’s letter to lawmakers and warned it could have negative consequences.

“This is this board wading into the politics,” Lewis said. “There’s been enough litigation and enough tension…now we’re voluntarily putting ourselves where we don’t need to be. This is going to be poorly received and it’s going to strain the relationship between the board the General Assembly and I fear it’s going to make our jobs a little more difficult.”

The state Board of Elections has frequently been drawn into political controversies in the last few years, from fights over its membership and composition to its being drawn into a protracted and controversial recount over the gubernatorial race in 2016.

The early voting bill is on its way to a full debate in the General Assembly as lawmakers rush to wind down the current legislative session by the end of June.

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