In case you were worried that North Carolina Republicans aren’t doing enough to restrict democracy, they advanced yet another measure Thursday to make voting more difficult.
On a party-line vote, the state Senate passed a bill that would make it much harder — all but impossible, critics say — to keep polls open late in the event that unforeseen Election Day issues interfere with voting. It comes after technical glitches caused major problems in some precincts in Durham County, a Democratic strong-hold, led to voting hours being extended in last November’s election — a move some Republicans called improper.
“Durham got an extra at-bat,” State Sen. Andrew Brock, the lead sponsor of the new bill, said at a committee hearing Wednesday.
Brock’s bill would bar courts and state or local election boards from extending voting hours for any precinct unless hours for every other precinct taking part “in that same election” were also extended. The effect would be to dramatically raise the cost and the logistical hurdles involved in extending voting hours, even when doing so is necessary to prevent voters from being disenfranchised.
Anita Earls, the executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), argued that the bill is unconstitutional because it ties the hands of state courts, who must be able to order whatever remedy is appropriate to uphold state constitutional guarantees of the right to vote.
Earls said that because of the way North Carolina schedules elections, the language in the measure referring to “that same election” means that in almost all cases, hours would need to be extended statewide. That would mean that the decision of a judge or election board would need to be communicated to all one hundred county election directors, and from there to tens of thousands of precinct officials across the state, all on Election Day or Night itself.
“Logistically, it’s almost unworkable,” Earls said.
Earls herself is a former member of the state elections board, appointed by Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat. Earls said the board members, who are volunteers, aren’t equipped to make major last-minute decisions governing the entire state’s election machinery.
And that’s not to mention the cost to the state — likely in the millions of dollars — of keeping every precinct open late in response to problems in just one county. That too would be likely to act as a major disincentive for election boards and judges.
And just to make extra sure that no one wrongly benefits from extended voting hours, the bill also would require voters who vote during extended hours to cast provisional ballots. Those ballots would only be counted if the order extending voting hours had not been reversed or stayed by the time of the vote count.
“The change that this bill seeks to create would really make it impossible to ever extend voting hours,” Earls said.
On Election Day last November, problems with electronic poll books, compounded by administrative problems, halted voting at several precincts in Durham, which has a large African-American population. At least one Durham site, known as Bethesda Ruritan Club, reportedly saw no voting for at least one and a half to two hours, leading some would-be voters to leave without casting a ballot.
After voting rights groups including the SCSJ rushed to court, the state elections board extended voting hours beyond the standard 7:30pm deadline at eight Durham precincts — though not by as much time as advocates said was needed. Bethesda Ruritan Club and one other site were granted an additional hour, while others got anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes.
In that election, Democrat Roy Cooper beat the incumbent governor, Republican Pat McCrory, by fewer than 5000 votes. That led McCrory’s campaign to allege, without evidence, in an official complaint filed days later that the extended hours in Durham had somehow led to an inaccurate vote count.
What happened in Durham was “extremely troubling, and no citizen can have confidence in the results at this time,” a lawyer for the campaign said at the time.
It’s not uncommon for election administrators or judges to extend voting hours on Election Day in response to unforeseen events that interfere with voting, like problems with voting machines or long lines.
Last year, a federal judge ordered that over 1000 sites in the Cincinnati area being kept open an extra hour so that voters stuck in traffic thanks to a major car accident could vote in Ohio’s primary. (An appeals court later said the judge erred in issuing the order.)
That prompted Ohio Republicans to pass a bill aimed at deterring voters from asking courts to extend voting hours. It required that voters who successfully sue to keep polls open late pay a bond—potentially the full cost of the extended hours, which could be thousands of dollars. The bill was vetoed by Gov. John Kasich.
In North Carolina, the vote on Brock’s bill came a day after state lawmakers voted to override Cooper’s veto of a bill that undermines the governor’s power over election administration in the state and hands more control to the GOP.
In addition, both North Carolina’s 2011 redistricting plan, which skewed the map heavily toward the GOP, and its 2013 voting law have been ruled racially discriminatory. And even after those rulings, the state GOP pressed local election boards last fall to restrict early voting hours in order to benefit Republicans.