Racial tensions run high during review of county early voting plans

The North State Journal—The North State Journal
FILE PHOTO: A crowd gathers as the North Carolina State Board of Election officials work to approve contested early-voting plans for 33 counties during a hearing in Raleigh on Thursday.

RALEIGH — The State Board of Elections held votes Thursday to settle the disputed early voting plans from 33 counties, as both parties tried to tip the scales in their favor with not just how many hours polls are open, but exactly when and where.The NCSBE has five board members, two Democrats and three Republicans. They reviewed the county disputed plans, in most cases voting along party lines and only voting in favor of keeping Sunday voting if the county had it in past elections. The responsibility of designing early voting plans fell back to the three-member county boards suddenly in July when the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected North Carolina’s voter ID law that would have created one plan statewide.”I believe in voter access. This decision gave me a chance to ask for Sunday voting,” said Craven County Board of Elections member Zeda Trice, who submitted a plan that adds two Sundays of voting in her county. “We are only talking about eight hours and we had voting in 2012. The more time voters have to exercise their constitutional rights, the better it is for all of us.”Sunday is a popular voting day in the African-American community as NAACP, Democracy NC and other groups have launched Souls to Polls, events that take congregations to vote. African-Americans traditionally support Democrats, and this year polls are showing a 94 percent preference for Hillary Clinton. Voter turnout overall is low on Sundays but to Democrats those votes are critical.Some Republicans are advocating an end to early voting completely, pointing out that many states don’t offer it at all, much less on Sundays. With a 17-day early voting period and a dearth of poll workers, Republicans generally support an increase in evening weekday and Saturday poll hours, and ending Sunday voting. The conflict is drawing national attention and raised tensions in the room as the state board worked their way through each of the 33 disputed plans.One member of the NCSBE, Democrat Joshua Malcolm, dominated the discussion with comments that called the motivation of county board members into question. Most said their voting plans were designed based on population, distance to the polls and overall voter turnout. Malcolm repeatedly questioned whether the county boards considered racial breakdown of voting patterns, something they are not statutorily required to do, but the NCSBE is. When NCSBE attorney Josh Lawson pointed that out to Malcolm, there was a burst of applause in the room, drawing a warning from the chairman.Craven County Board of Elections director Meloni Wray said that their plan took the 17-day early voting requirement but gave poll workers Sundays off. Overall, Craven County increased the number of voting hours. “We do need a day to get ready and time off. The average age of our poll worker is 72,” said Wray.”Ma’am, would you agree that as the director, it doesn’t really matter what you think? It matters what the law is?” said Malcolm to Wray.Ultimately, the state board decided to eliminate a Saturday of voting in Craven County for two Sunday four-hour voting periods.The tension spilled out into the parking lot, where North Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse was confronted by Sunday voting supporters from Durham County while he was conducting a television interview.”Republicans passed a voter ID law and Democrats fought it,” Woodhouse told a television reporter while the Durham opponents showed their clear opposition in the background. “Now we are under their law. … Look, all this is much ado about nothing. It’s just an effort to motivate their voter base because Democrats have nothing to run on. The economy is good, the governor is doing well.”In front of reporters one woman called Woodhouse an expletive and said, “You can say what you want, but you are trying to suppress the vote.”Back inside, the Randolph County plan was before the state board. Member Margaret Megerian told the board she was approached by the president of the NAACP and asked to submit a plan for Sunday voting so their local churches could add the Souls to the Polls program in Randolph County.Randolph County Board of Elections Chairman Bill McAnulty told the board he originally supported Sunday voting but changed his mind. “When it got out in the newspaper, I was accused of being a traitor by the Republican Party. I was made a villain,” he said.”Are you saying that you were beholden to the Republican party?” challenged Malcolm.”No, I am not,” said McAnulty. “I made a mistake. I am obligated to support what the majority of the people want.”The NCSBE voted down Megerian’s plan and accepted the majority one, saying the county had not previously had Sunday voting.The battle over Sunday voting loomed over the board and most expressed regret that the issue had been so politicized. They said they were satisfied that all the plans increase poll hours over 2012 in ways that served the individual communities. Their concern was the limited number of election workers each county has and their need to train more to accommodate the increased in poll hours.