By Karlton Tate
As North Carolina gears up for election season this November, the voting controversy has once again reared its ugly head. State Republican party leaders, in the wake of the federal government’s slap on the wrist, have now shifted their focus towards achieving a discriminatory reduction of the early voting period.
Last July, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down many elements of North Carolina’s controversial Voter Information Verification Act. This law contained a provision which required voters to bring a government issued photo ID to the polls, and this component of the law was specifically dismantled by the court as an unconstitutional restriction on voting rights. However, other provisions of the law designed to curb Democratic voter turnout, like the reduction of the early voting period, were not as explicitly addressed by the court.
This ambiguity in the court’s ruling has left the gates open for state lawmakers to manipulate the law. While the court did mandate that each county must offer at least 17 days of early voting, it did not specify when these days were to be held or how many early voting sites each county must offer. Even after the court’s ruling, current state law only requires a minimum of one voting site to be open on weekday business hours and the Saturday before election day.
One aspect of early voting the court did address however, was the reduction of Sunday voting hours. Offered by several counties in North Carolina, Sunday voting hours are popular among African American churches and organizations to coordinate events like “Souls to the Polls,” in which voters are bussed to voting sites after Sunday service. The appeals court deemed that the slashing of Sunday voting hours in counties which had previously offered them was undoubtedly discriminatory, and “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Now, GOP party leaders like 1st Congressional District Chairman Garry Terry are calling for Republicans on local board of elections to offer the minimum number of hours and locations mandated by the antiquated state law. Terry is one of many GOP leaders who realize that early voting periods attract Democrats to the polls, and lobbies for their elimination. In a confidential email sent to Republican county election officials and released by the Raleigh News & Observer, Terry expressed his strong partisan stance on the matter.
“We will never discourage anyone from voting but none of us have any obligation in any shape, form or fashion to do anything to help the Democrats win this election. “Left unchecked, they would have early voting sites at every large gathering place for Democrats,” wrote Terry.
In 67 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, the local election boards determined the number of early voting hours and locations of early voting sites. However, if the county election board cannot come to unanimous decision, state law dictates that election guidelines must be settled by the (GOP dominated) State Board of Elections.
In early September, the State Board of Elections came to a resolution on the 33 remaining counties’ election guidelines, and organizations like the NC NAACP and the League of Women Voters came away with mixed reactions. For Wake and Mecklenburg counties, the state’s most populous and critical to the gubernatorial and presidential election, total early voting hours were increased alongside an increase in the number of early voting sites. However, many organizations feel that there is still much work to be done.
Fortunately for residents of Chapel Hill, voters will see an increase in the number of early voting hours offered from the 2012 election. A split vote on the Orange County Board of Elections meant that the county’s election guidelines were determined by the State Board of Elections. To the disappointment of many Democratic organizations, the board did not vote to introduce Sunday voting hours to the county, a deficiency that will continue from the last election cycle.
The importance of an early voting period is additionally demonstrated by recent state voting statistics. In North Carolina in the 2012 election, 56% of all votes were cast during the early voting period. Last March, the primary elections also revealed that early voting is becoming increasingly popular in the state. The state Board of Elections reported that 11% of registered voters cast a ballot during the early voting period, which was up from 8% of registered voters in the 2012 primary election. In the 2016 primary, there were a total of 205,434 more votes cast in the early voting period than in 2012 primary election. Data like these illuminate North Carolinians’ reliance on the early voting period, and the vast impact a reduction of early voting would have on the state’s voters.
This November, North Carolina will receive an influx of election attention, as the state will prove to be a crucial battleground in the 2016 presidential race. Currently, the presidential candidates are polling dead even in the state, which makes it evident that every single vote matters.
Photo by Julia Long