North Carolina voters are once again dealing with changes to how the state runs its elections. At a time when early voting is becoming increasingly popular nationwide, a new law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature will result in nearly 20 percent fewer places to cast votes before Election Day.
Democrats say the changes could disproportionately affect African-American voters but some local Republican officials also complain about the changes, arguing they impose too much top-down control on election administration and amount to an unfunded mandate from the state.
The state's 17-day early voting period, which starts Wednesday, is extremely popular. More than 60 percent of North Carolina voters cast an early ballot in the 2016 election, according to the state's board of elections.
In Gaston County, just west of Charlotte, Elections Director Adam Ragan said the county cut its early voting locations from five to three as a result of the law, which was passed in June. The law requires all sites within a county to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week. Previously, counties, which are responsible for administering elections, had leeway to set the number of hours early voting sites could be open.
"I would have loved to have had more early voting locations," Ragan said, "It came down to having more locations, helping more voters versus our fiduciary responsibilities to the county."
North Carolina has been ground zero in the partisan voting wars of the past decade. Since 2010, a number of laws passed by the Republican-controlled legislature on voter ID, redistricting and early voting have been struck down by courts at various points.
When the legislature debated the early voting law in June, Democratic state Rep. Amos Quick said the requirement that if one early voting site is open on the weekend, all the rest of a county's sites also have to be open could discourage counties from holding any weekend hours.
"Weekend early voting has been preferred...by certain populations," Quick said, referring to African-American voters. "Certain populations whose right to vote who has not only been highlighted but has been protected in recent court decisions."
In 2016, a federal appeals court ruled a 2013 state law that cut early voting by a week and got rid of same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting targeted African-Americans with "surgical precision."
The three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote GOP lawmakers asked for racial data about the breakdown of early voting usage and after learning that more African-Americans, who generally back Democrats, voted early compared to white voters, they changed the bill to eliminate the first week of early voting.
Republican state Rep. David Lewis, who championed the most recent changes to early voting this summer, said during debate on the bill that minimizing confusion for voters was the goal.
"What we set out with the intention to do is to be able to make it more reliable and dependable that the voters would know that the early voting site or sites in their county was open from a set time in the morning to a set time in the evening," he said, also pointing out that across the state, early voting sites will be open for a longer number of total hours.
While Republicans in the state's powerful legislature back the law, at the county level, the law has run into some bipartisan opposition.
"Frustrated is the word that I would use," said Ron Wyatt, the chair of the Iredell County GOP. The county, located north of Charlotte, has cut its early voting sites in half as a result of the law.
Wyatt argues the law contradicts Republicans' general emphasis on local control and he says it translates as an unfunded mandate for counties.
Rural counties with smaller election budgets like Iredell are disproportionately affected by this change. While individual voting locations may be open longer, there will be 17 percent fewer sites this election, according to the state board of elections.
For voters, convenience trumps longer hours, said Charles Stewart III, an MIT political scientist who studies voting administration.
"There's a lot of research that suggests that whenever a polling place moves further away from a voter, they are less likely to vote there," Stewart said.
Stewart hypothesized that the new law could shift turnout voting from the early voting period to Election Day, which could mean longer lines at the polls.
In a state where voting rights have become such a political hot potato, election officials say they are used to adapting on short notice.
"Due to court cases, legislation all of that kind of thing factors in," said Becky Galliher, the elections director in Iredell County. "It just seems like we always have something each election that takes us in a different direction."
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