Election officials in nearly two dozen North Carolina counties have approved reductions in early-voting hours ahead of November’s elections, cuts that Democrats warn could disenfranchise many low-income voters.
County boards of elections have approved reducing early-voting hours in 23 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Another eight counties plan to end early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, when a huge number of African-American voters tend to go to the polls.
North Carolina is a critical swing state in the presidential race, one where Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports MORE is counting on a heavy African-American voter turnout. President Obama won North Carolina in 2008 and narrowly lost the state in 2012.
The battle for the Senate majority also goes through North Carolina. Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrEmboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes NC Republican primary key test of Trump's sway The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill MORE (R) is in a tough race with former Democratic state Rep. Deborah Ross. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) also faces a difficult reelection battle.
Mecklenburg County, home of 682,000 registered voters who live in and around Charlotte, will allow 2,504 hours of early voting, far more than any other county in North Carolina but fewer than the 2,742 hours available ahead of the 2012 elections.
The county elections board voted in August to open six early-voting sites during the first seven days of early voting and 16 additional sites during the last 10 days.
County officials are required to open polls for at least 17 days of early voting. A 2013 election reform measure would have reduced that number to 10 early-voting days, though the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked that law earlier this summer.
Each county’s elections board is composed of two members of the governor’s party and one member of the minority party. That means boards even in heavily Democratic counties like Mecklenburg are run by two Republicans. At the August meeting, Carol Williams, the only Democrat on the Mecklenburg panel, filed a dissenting plan that would have increased the number of early-voting hours there.
Counties in which elections boards split along partisan lines send their plans to the state Board of Elections, which will decide to approve or amend plans in a meeting Thursday.
The county decisions come after Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the state Republican Party, sent an email to GOP activists urging Republican elections board members to make changes to early-voting times. Woodhouse wrote that many Republicans opposed Sunday voting out of respect for religious preferences.
“Six days of voting in one week is enough. Period,” Woodhouse wrote. He accused Democrats of mounting a concerted push to expand early voting in counties where it would favor them.
Democrats say cuts to early-voting hours will reduce voter access, especially among African-American and low-income voters.
“We’re disappointed so many counties have reduced early voting hours,” said Dave Miranda, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party. “We support any effort to expand ballot access and make voting more easily accessible for legally registered voters.”
Amid charges that cuts to early-voting hours are targeted specifically at African-American voters, three counties with the highest percentages of black residents will see those hours reduced.
Bertie County, where 62 percent of residents are black and Obama scored 66 percent of the vote in 2012, will hold 117 fewer early-voting hours in 2016 than four years earlier. Northampton and Edgecombe counties, both 58 percent black, will see their early-voting hours reduced by 37 and 31, respectively.
The steepest cuts to early-voting hours came in Lenoir County, southeast of Raleigh, which will keep early voting open for just 106 hours, down from 443 hours in 2012. Though registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a more than 2-to-1 margin in the rural area, Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the county by 2 percentage points in 2012.
Republicans point to the fact that the vast majority of North Carolina counties will expand the number of early-voting hours in 2016 — including some of the most Democratic counties in the state.
Durham County officials voted in August to open five polling stations in the first week and eight more for the final 10 days of early voting, for a total of 1,541 hours, a 50 percent increase over the number of hours in 2012. Guilford, Forsyth, Buncombe and Wake counties, all of which voted for Obama over Romney in 2012, will expand their early-voting hours, too.
Seventy counties will allow more hours of early voting than they did in 2012, according to an analysis by Raleigh's The News and Observer. Six counties will hold the same number of early-voting hours as four years ago, and one county did not submit a plan.
While eight county boards voted to end Sunday early voting, three other counties decided to open their doors to Sunday voters for the first time in 2016. Those three counties — Rowan, Greene and Hyde — all voted for Romney in 2012.
Thousands of North Carolina voters will kick off the 2016 election season later this week, when the state begins putting absentee ballots in the mail. The first early-voting locations open Oct. 22, 17 days before Election Day.