State Board Settles Early Voting Fights In Mecklenburg, Other Counties

Sep 9, 2016

Credit Jennifer Lang

African-American turnout, partisan politics and the threat of more lawsuits were all on the minds of North Carolina Board of Elections members yesterday. They set the final early voting plans for 33 counties that couldn’t reach their own agreement, including Mecklenburg.

All counties had to go back to the drawing board about a month ago, after a federal appeals court struck down major parts of the state’s 2013 election overhaul.

Franklin County election board member James Jones says he hates to say it, but this is what it’s all about:

"Voter suppression, there seems to be a covert operation going on," he said. 

That’s how some African-Americans, Democrats and attorneys view the shifting fight over early voting. It used to be about days, as Republican state lawmakers cut seven days from early voting in their 2013 overhaul.

But the appeals court ruled that and other changes were passed with discriminatory intent. The judges pointed out state lawmakers had data showing African-Americans disproportionately used early voting. 

The ruling restored the seven days, but now the fight is all about hours.

“If we look at it numerically, we’ve added 40 for a total of 400,” said Thomas Bregger, a Republican on the Franklin County Board of Elections. His plan added early voting hours compared to the last presidential election, but not as much as Jones, a Democrat, wanted.

Each county board has two Republicans and one Democrat. Boards that couldn’t unanimously agree had to get final resolution from the state board. It has three Republicans and two Democrats.

The state board voted along party lines for the GOP plan in Franklin, Gaston, Craven and Rockingham counties. But there were also a variety of bipartisan voting combinations, including unanimous approval of plans in Rowan, Union and Cleveland counties.

“There was an increase in hours in this particular plan, and I think it’s a good one,” Republican state board member Rhonda Amoroso said about Cleveland County.

“I agree with that too,” said her Democratic colleague Joshua Malcolm. “And the fact that this goes into the evening hours and it does two Saturdays, I’m in support of it. I’ll second your motion if you’ll make it.”

There were a few plans from rural counties that would’ve cut hours 50 to 75 percent compared to the last presidential election. The board didn’t let any of those through. In terms of percent change, there were no huge cuts.

But even a Sunday can make a big difference, attorney Press Millen argued on behalf of Democrats in New Hanover County.

“African-American voters made up 44 percent of the Sunday voters in the March primary,” he said. “This is in a county where African-Americans as a whole make up only 13 percent of total registered voters.”

Millen argued that’s the kind of evidence that led the federal appeals court to strike down early voting cutbacks statewide. But board members weren’t convinced by his argument based on turnout in a primary.

They had even less patience for the arguments raised by a Republican member of the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections, Liz McDowell.

“Our goal as members of the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections is to preserve the integrity of the voting process,” she said.

McDowell wanted to cut hours about 9 percent compared to 2012. She explained that in part by talking about the need to prevent voters from being “used” by either party to cast votes. She gave examples that included “the victimization of the elderly, the mentally infirm, and other non-English speaking voters.”

“Are you serious,” Democrat Joshua Malcolm interrupted.

McDowell said, yes, she’s heard reports of voters being directed by someone else.

“We’re talking about those that are mentally impaired and being assisted without them asking for any assistance,” she said.

“Do you know that?” Malcolm replied.

“We have reports,” she answered.

“Do you know that?” he pressed.

“Yes, I do know that,” she said. “I have observed that.”

“So you know whether they’ve been diagnosed with dementia, whether they have a cognitive impairment?” Malcolm followed.

“No, that is true,” she conceded. “I have not known that.”

The state board’s general counsel stepped in eventually, pointing out the Republicans didn’t propose different voting locations for security reasons – just fewer of them.  

The cuts are concentrated in the first week. In 2012, there were 22 locations that week. Mecklenburg’s Republicans proposed six for this year.

Malcolm asked Mecklenburg County Elections Director Michael Dickerson if that would be do-able based on turnout last time.

“That would be very difficult to do, 15,000 people a day at six sites, you’re right,” Dickerson replied.

Dickerson says long lines could push people back into the later weeks of early voting or to Election Day. After all, he said Mecklenburg had lines even with the much higher number of sites in 2012. 

Republican state board member James Baker put it another way:

“Trying to cram 14,500 or so voters in almost a third the number of hours that were done four years ago - that’s an obvious problem,” Baker said. “We can’t ignore that. What rationale was going through the minds of the majority? I don’t understand how this is going to work.”

McDowell replied that no one told the county board in early discussions it would be that big a problem. But the lone Democrat on the Mecklenburg board said she wanted the same number of sites all along.

Eventually, Baker proposed a compromise in between their two plans. Malcolm replied that didn’t go far enough. 

“I can't support it,” he said. “I think this is going to be the poster child of what not to do.”

It passed along party lines. That’s in contrast with a similar dilemma for Wake County, where Baker joined the Democrats to greatly expand the hours.

Some attorneys were there who’ve taken part in the election overhaul case that led to the appeals court ruling. They called the state board’s decisions a mixed bag, and were not ready to say whether they’ll seek changes in court yet again.