Alterations to one-stop voting in North Carolina are leaving county boards, including Sampson’s, to figure out how new mandates will best be met for the voting populous while working within slashed budgets and manpower limitations.
As many elections board are doing this week, the Sampson Board of Elections met Tuesday to discuss the formulation of a one-stop voting plan for the upcoming general election. No consensus on off-site locations or hours was reached for a final product and talks will continue at 8 a.m. this Friday, July 20, in the Sampson County Board of Elections Office.
On June 27, the N.C. General Assembly overrode the governor’s veto to enact SB 325, which alters the schedule for early voting in North Carolina. The early voting period now begins a day earlier, on the third Wednesday before Election Day (Oct. 17). It was set to end the Friday before Election Day (Nov. 2), but on the last day of session, HB 335 was approved, adding back the last Saturday of early voting.
“We need to figure out the best way to take care of our voters,” said Board of Elections director Ashley Tew, who proposed cutting two of the previous four off-site one-stop locations while expanding the hours for early voting. She cited a 40 percent cut to the budget that dictated some serious crunching of the numbers.
“The budget is a huge issue, obviously. If we are going to take away places,” she said, “I want to give them time to vote.”
At a minimum, according to a recent memo sent to county boards of election from the N.C. State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, the county board office must be open during regular business hours throughout the one-stop early voting period. Any other schedule for the board office requires the unanimous approval of a one-stop implementation plan.
On each weekday during the early voting period, all additional one-stop sites in the county must be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., according to the new law. In short, any day a one-stop site in the county is open, all one-stop sites in the county must be open on that day.
“This is true both during weekdays and weekends, although on weekends the hours may vary as long as the number of hours at each site is the same,” the memo reads. “If any one-stop site is open on a Saturday or Sunday, then all one-stop sites must be open for the same number of hours on that Saturday or Sunday.”
This time around, early voting on that last Saturday will take place at a minimum at the county board office from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., with the option to be open until 5 p.m. All one-stop sites would also be open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., with the option to be open until 5 p.m.
In the 2014 general election, there were three off-site one-stop locations in Garland, Newton Grove and Roseboro. For 2016’s general election, an additional off-site location was opened in Plain View. Those four off-site locations were opened a week after early voting began at the Sampson Board of Elections. Hours at the main election location were 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. through the week and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. Off-site locations were open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Tew noted that, in 2014, the three off-site locations were open a cumulative 353 hours. Taking away two sites, but expanding the hours, voters would have a total of 501 hours of potential early voting time in the upcoming election.
Tew said keeping the four sites would likely require more money and a funding request to the county, which was also an option but likely wouldn’t be able to be accomplished by this week’s deadline from the state. One-stop implementation plans or notification of non-agreement on a one-stop plan are due by this Friday, July 20. They must be approved by a unanimous vote of all four county board members.
The decision is ultimately the board’s to make, Tew said. Failure to compromise will mean that the nine-member State Board will determine the county’s plan.
Democrat Horace Bass said he was OK if the state had to make the decision, but he wanted to think over the matter further and involve people within his party, so that the best opportunity to bring voters to polls was offered. Board chairman Danny Jackson, a Republican, and Tew expressed concerns that leaving it in the hands of the state could result in the loss of weekend voting. Bass said he was willing to take that chance. Republican Quincy Edgerton said he was not.
“If the state is going to make the decisions, then we should just disband the local boards,” Jackson said.
There was a great deal of discussion on which of the two off-site locations could be nixed. Tew said it costs roughly $7,000 to operate an off-site voting location. In 2016, it cost $24,000 for one-stop alone for the four sites.
Edgerton said he wanted to see at least one site open in the northern end and another in the southern end, with Newton Grove and Garland floated as possibilities.
“We want to do what’s best for the citizens,” said Edgerton, adding that he would be agreeable to whichever sites the board wished.
In attendance at the meeting was interim Democrat Party chair Charlotte Murphy. She said the party would like to see expanded hours and Saturday and Sunday voting included in Sampson’s plan. Even if that meant requesting more funds from county commissioners, Murphy said that would be “more palatable.” Bass agreed.
David Whedbee, with the American Civil Liberties Union, also in attendance, offered some statistics from weekend voting, noting that black voters made up roughly 30 percent of Sampson’s voter base, but 40 percent of its Saturday voters and 60 percent of its Sunday voters, according to figures from recent general elections. Meanwhile, he said, Roseboro and Garland were utilized by a majority of black voters, especially on weekends.
No representative for the local Republican Party was present at the meeting.
Regardless of the decision, Democrat G.H. Wilson said he wanted to see the one-stop plan formulated at the local level. He said he was willing to compromise to achieve that.
“I’d rather us decide here,” he said. “If we have to be unanimous, I’m ready to go the extra mile to make sure it is unanimous. I think I could compromise one way or the other.”
“We’ve got to make a decision based on the money we’ve got,” Edgerton added.
No vote was taken, with the board agreeing to continue discussion on Friday.
Prior to the one-stop talk, the four-member Sampson Board of Elections reorganized in swift fashion at Tuesday’s meeting with Democrat Bass ceding his chairman’s seat to Republican Jackson by way of a unanimous vote.
Jackson, who was previously vice-chair, then nominated Democrat Wilson for vice-chair seat, and again the vote was unanimous. Republican Edgerton was previously part of a three-member board with Bass and Jackson. Wilson came on earlier this year when a fourth member was added due to legislation that required counties to have equal party representation on the board.
Leadership will change every year.
Managing Editor Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 2587.