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North Carolina Republicans cry foul over call for early voting plans

Voters walk towards The Maxwell Center to cast their ballots during early voting in Goldsboro Friday morning October 21, 2022.
Jonathon Gruenke
/
For WUNC
Voters walk towards The Maxwell Center to cast their ballots during early voting in Goldsboro Friday morning October 21, 2022.

State and county elections officials in North Carolina are accustomed to sudden and frequent change to voting rules and schedules. In 2021, a court decision over redistricting suspended candidate filing for the 2022 midterms and moved the primaries from March to May.

And in 2022, the conservative-majority North Carolina Supreme Court reversed a ruling against a photo ID requirement for voters and reinstated the law. That meant getting voters informed in time to cast ballots in the 2023 municipal elections.

Then there were recent law changes passed by the Republican-majority North Carolina General Assembly that eliminated a three-day grace period for counting properly post-marked mail-in ballots and gave partisan poll observers freer rein to move around voting sites.

But an email from the state elections board to county elections directors announcing a calendar change caught Patrick Wike off guard.

"When I first got that I thought it was an April Fool's joke," Wike, elections director in Alexander County, said, referring to the April 1 missive.

Date change for early voting plans came 'out of nowhere'

The email from North Carolina State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell instructed Wike and the 99 other county elections directors to have their local boards submit early voting plans by May 7, in less than 30 days, just as they were preparing for this year's runoff primaries.

"It was kind of an all of a sudden out of nowhere 'get your plans done,'" Wike said.

And what made it a little more surprising, Wike said, was it was not coming from a court or the legislature.

"This one was different in the fact that it kind of came from a partner agency, being the State Board of Elections, who works tandemly with us and understands the constraints and logistics that we go through," he explained.

County elections boards typically have to submit their early voting plans for the fall at the start of August.

State law requires local elections officials to give advance notice to tax-funded sites being used as polling places at least 90 days before the start of early voting.

Still, Wike and his board got to work and secured the use of three early voting sites to serve Alexander County's roughly 25,000 registered voters.

The task for Wake County's director, Olivia McCall, and her staff was a lot heavier, with 22 sites needed for early voting.

"What we do for the board," McCall explained, "is making sure that they're informed of which sites are sites that have adequate parking, that are not under construction."

With such a large county — Wake has more than 820,000 registered voters — McCall said conversations with facility managers about possible use for early voting in 2024 started late last year. But still, she added, collecting all the information needed by county elections board members while dealing with a runoff primary this year was daunting.

"We're no stranger to change," McCall said. "It's just that the challenge there was the short notice and the unexpected notice."

Most counties got plans in on time

Ninety-seven of the state's bipartisan county elections boards have already submitted their plans, most of them unanimously adopted. Twelve were not unanimous, mostly due to disagreements over Sunday voting or site location. Three counties got extensions because of site availability issues.

The state elections board is scheduled to take up those disputes and give final approval to county plans at its meeting on June 4.

But Republicans have raised questions about the state board's decision to move up the date for finalizing early voting plans.

"We believe it was done in order to preserve a 3-2 advantage at the county and state level," said Matt Mercer, communications director for the North Carolina Republican Party.

Court battle over make up of elections boards looms

Under current law, the state and local elections boards have five members each, the majority from the same party as the sitting governor — in this case, Democrats — a structure that Republican state senators have long wanted to change.

"I think we have a real challenge with a governor who runs for election, who's in charge of the board who conducts his elections," state Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican co-chair of the Redistricting and Elections Committee, recently told WUNC.

That is the same argument proponents of independent redistricting make about lawmakers who draw their own electoral maps.

Republican state lawmakers tried to change the makeup of elections boards after Democrat Roy Cooper was first elected governor in 2016, an effort deemed unconstitutional in state court.

Last year, the GOP-majority legislature again passed a law to reshape elections boards, giving lawmakers more authority over enforcing voting rules. The measure would turn the state and county elections boards into even-numbered bodies, with members appointed by the minority and majority leaders in the state House and Senate.

The move was blocked by a court again, though an appeal at some point is all but certain.

Amid that uncertainty, the state elections board's chairman, Democrat Alan Hirsch, wanted to get early voting plans in place, according to state elections executive director Karen Brinson Bell.

That is what she told a top Republican on the Joint Legislative Elections Oversight Committee at a hearing in April and how she explained it to WUNC in a follow-up interview.

Brinson Bell also said it's good administrative practice to accomplish tasks early, especially in a state prone to hurricanes and elections litigation.

"We look for ways to get ahead because you never know what's going to happen," she said.

Good administration or partisan gamesmanship?

For Michael Bitzer, chair of the politics department at Catawba College and author of "Redistricting and Gerrymandering in North Carolina: Battlelines in the Tar Heel State," said claims of political maneuvering in the adoption of early voting plans come as no surprise.

"In this hyper-partisan, polarized environment what one side may see as administrative convenience and integrity can also be seen through the partisan lenses of 'you're trying to stack the decks in your party's favor,'" Bitzer said.

But Bitzer added that when it comes to early voting, he believes bipartisan county boards generally strive for balance.

"Generally, what I've tended to see," Bitzer said, "is that among county boards, for the most part, they will try to find the balance of 'We've got an early location in this community, we have an early location in this community, the two communities are different but they will serve constituents and, ultimately, the voters.'"

And early voting is popular across the political spectrum, with two-thirds of North Carolina voters going to the polls early in recent presidential years.

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Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.