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Local elections board splits on Sunday voting

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Jeffrey Blick, Vice-Chair of the Pitt County Board of Elections, listens to public comments during their meeting on July 12, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Friday, July 13, 2018

The state elections board will set Pitt County’s early-voting hours for November’s general election after the three-person board deadlocked over Sunday voting.

The board’s two Democrats — chairwoman Etsil Mason and member Pat Dunn — supported Sunday voting while Republican Jeff Blick opposed the plan during a special called meeting on Thursday. A second Republican seat was vacant because the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement was unable to appoint a new member since it did not receive the candidate names before it met earlier on Thursday

During the nearly two-hour Pitt County meeting, the three members worked to develop a plan that allowed for multiple early voting sites, weekend voting and some respite for poll workers during the 2 ½-week early-voting period that runs Oct. 17-Nov. 3.

The two proposals cost slightly less than the $73,573 initially budgeted for the early-voting period and offered more voting hours that initially proposed by staff.

However, the plans did away with early-voting locations in Ayden and Farmville because the per-voter costs were prohibitive.

Pitt County Election Director Dave Davis said that based on previous years’ turnout, it would cost nearly $17 per voter to operate the Farmville site and $14 per voter to operate the Ayden site.

During a public comment period prior to the discussion, Greenville resident Coral Whichard asked the board to exclude Sunday from the early-voting calendar, saying voters have proven they will vote when the polls are open “and don’t need special times.”

Alex Dennis, ECU’s assistant director of leadership and service learning, urged the board to retain Willis building as an early-voting site this election but to consider moving the location to the new student center in 2020. ECU student Hunter Whittington echoed that request.

“It’s hard enough to get to know who they are voting for, much less getting them to walk five or six blocks to vote,” Whittington said.

Setting this year’s early-voting scheduled had several challenges beyond the question of Sunday voting and stationing a site at ECU.

The General Assembly approved legislation requiring counties that operate multiple sites to have all of them open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays during the entire early-voting period. Counties were given the option of having early voting on Saturday and Sunday, but all sites had to be open.

Keeping Pitt County’s seven early voting sites open weekdays and the three Saturdays during the early-voting period would have cost $113,177, $39,600 above the current budget, Davis said.

After deciding to not open sites in Farmville and Ayden, the board debated whether the Willis Building site should be opened.

“I think the question is. what is the cost to the county compared to the number of voters?” Blick asked.

Davis estimated the per voter cost of the Willis Building was nearly $10, not quite double the per voter cost of about $5.50 to operate the county office building and agricultural center sites. It costs $4 to operate at Winterville Fire Station and $2.81 to operate site at Alice Keene Park.

Blick said when examining the age range of voters who cast ballots in the Willis Building this spring, about 210 were age 41 and above while 25 were age 18-25 and 54 were age 25-20.

While he believed the older voters would go to other early-voting locations, Blick said he believed the college-aged and young adult voters would likely be lost.

The board members agreed the Willis Building would remain an early-voting site along with the Pitt County Agricultural Center, PATS conference room at the county office building, the Center at Alice Keene Park and Winterville Fire Station.

Blick said he could not support early voting on Sunday because he believes it was too burdensome on staff. Poll workers would have 13-hour days because they have to work before and after the polls close.

Davis offered a rotating schedule which will allow poll workers to work two days and have a day off, during the early-voting period. The schedule reduces overtime expenses, he said.

Mason and Dunn argued for Sunday voting.

“I think it’s clear — and I preface this with my work experience at the hospital — it is very difficult to leave the campus during the day,” Mason said. Workers at ECU and to a less extent Pitt Community College, also face similar travel challenges.

“I think for the public good we have to look at weekend hours,” Mason said. She proposed having Saturday and Sunday early voting.

“It is the act of citizenship to vote and it’s up to government, to the bureaucracy, to make voting as easy as possible,” she said.

The new legislation doesn’t require early voting sites to operate from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends; counties can adjust their operational hours.

Davis proposed Saturday hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in a plan without Sunday voting and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. with Sunday voting.

“I’m not sure how many (people) are going to get up to be there at eight on a Saturday,” Blick said.

The board members began making calculations to adjust hours.

Mason and Dunn’s plan proposed 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for all three Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 28.

Blick’s plan proposed 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. the first two Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the last Saturday.

Blick said his plan offered more voting hours overall, 870 hours to the Sunday plan’s 860 hours.

“I think the number of hours are important but the days also are important,” Dunn said. Mason said she believed the data would show few voters will take advantage of the early morning and evening hours on weekdays because many workers with lower-paying jobs work 12-hour shifts that fall between those hours.

North Carolina law requires the state elections board to set early voting schedules if the local board’s vote is divided.

Davis said the state board, which requires counties to submit their plans by July 20, has tentatively set Aug. 6 as the date it will review and confirm early voting plans.

However, the  North Carolina Elections Conference is scheduled for Aug.6-7 in Winston-Salem, so the board may reschedule the decision for another time, Davis said,

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