Local fallout: New early voting law may reduce early voting sites
By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector
Thursday, June 21, 2018
The choice between having early voting on the weekends or having seven early voting sites faces Pitt County’s Board of Elections in preparation for the Nov. 6 general election.
Elections Director Dave Davis and the local elections board reviewed the available options that comply with new rules approved by the General Assembly last week.
The legislation, which as of Wednesday night was awaiting Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature or veto, requires counties that operate multiple early voting locations to have all of them open between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. weekdays during the early voting period, which runs the third Wednesday before an election to the last Friday before the election. This year the early voting period runs from Oct. 17-Nov. 2.
The legislation lets counties decide if early voting will be offered on Saturdays and Sundays and the hours of operation on those days, but all early voting sites have to be open, Davis said.
No voting sites will be open the Saturday before elections.
Among Pitt County’s current legislative delegation, which will change next year because of redistricting, Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, was the only one to vote for the legislation. Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, and Sen. Don Davis, D-Pitt, voted against it. Rep. Greg Murphy, R-Pitt, and Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, had excused absences and did not vote.
Seven voter rights advocates attended the Pitt board’s Wednesday meeting.
“We don’t know what is going to happen with this law but the one thing I ask is let’s try to keep politics out of this room,” said Marques Thompson, northeast regional organizer for Democracy North Carolina, a voter advocacy group.
Thompson praised former elections board chairman Patrick Nelson for striving over the years to keep early voting consistent. He urged the current board to follow that example, saying his organization — like the elections board — wants to do everything possible to bring the maximum number of voters to the polls.
Since 2010 Pitt County has operated seven early voting sites during presidential and midterm elections. With the exception of 2014, when the early voting period was shortened, the county has operated four sites — the county agricultural center, the Center at Alice Keene Park, the PATS conference room and the Winterville Fire Station — for the entire early-voting period. Three more — in Ayden, Farmville and East Carolina University’s Willis Building — have been open on the final week, Davis said. The local board has also experimented with staggering voting hours.
Pitt County’s fiscal year 2018-19 budget includes $73,574 to fund early voting, Davis said. The amount was based on the current early voting calendar and an estimate that between 18,929 and 22,145 voters will cast ballots during that period.
It would cost the county $126,757 to operate seven sites Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Davis said.
Operating under that schedule would require the county Board of Commissioners to increase funding, either using the body’s discretionary funds or a fund balance appropriation.
Davis said a county commissioner, whom he did not identify, met with him Monday to discuss the legislation’s effect on the county. The commissioner did not discuss additional funding.
A seven-site, seven-day early voting period would take more than a financial toll, Davis said.
While the voting period is 12 hours, poll workers work an additional hour opening and closing the site, he said. The average Pitt County poll worker is 69 and a number of them have health conditions.
“Our worry is (with) a 13-hour day, we are going to lose a lot of workers,” Davis said. The problem could be partially offset by splitting shifts, which is allowed during early voting, but that could increase the budget.
Davis reviewed three options whose costs would be close to the current budget.
One would require closing the Farmville and Ayden early voting sites, which have the lowest turnout, keeping the Willis Building open with the four other locations, but not allowing for weekend voting.
Another option would close the Farmville, Ayden and Willis Building sites and allow for voting Monday-Saturday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., at the four core sites.
The third option, which would come in below budget, would close the Farmville, Ayden and Willis Building sites, but allow Saturday voting from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Sunday voting from 1-5 p.m.
Etsil Mason, elections board chairwoman, questioned if the Willis Building was the right site to close. Mason said the PATS Conference Room was not comfortable and parking was congested. The Willis Building site also was more convenient for East Carolina University students.
Board member Pat Dunn pointed out the PATS site drew more voters and a site should not be selected to serve a specific population.
Davis said Willis Building does not serve just ECU students. It is the Greenville 8A precinct on Election Day and it has adequate parking, he said..
Davis said the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement said it will set a deadline for submitting county early-voting plans sometime in late July or early August. The state board must approve all county plans before they are implemented.
There remains a lot of uncertainty about how early voting will proceed. If the governor vetoes the legislation the General Assembly has to override it, an outcome most believe is likely. It is unclear if any groups will seek an injunction to stop the legislation, requiring counties to base their early-voting plans on current rules.
The local board decided to delay its next meeting until July 25 to see what further developments may come from the new legislation.