Ever since a three-judge panel on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina's voter ID law in July, Republican leaders have been trying to figure out how to game the decision to their electoral advantage. The law, after all, did much more than force people to show IDs to vote; it also eliminated same-day voter registration and cut early voting from seventeen days to ten.
Because of that decision—which a divided Supreme Court declined to overturn—county boards of elections had to sort out what to do with those extra seven days of early voting. The state Republicans openly asked those boards—all of which have two Republicans and one Democrat—to try to circumvent the Fourth Circuit's ruling.
There was the damning Dallas Woodhouse email to Republican members of county boards of elections, in which the NCGOP executive director called for "party-line changes to early voting." Then, Woodhouse's cousin Eddie Woodhouse, a former Jesse Helms aide, was appointed to the Wake County Board of Elections and immediately tried to cut Sunday voting hours. And Garry Terry, the GOP's First Congressional District chairman, implored the Vance County Board of Elections in an email obtained by The News & Observer to offer the least amount of early voting hours legally possible, and then only at one location—in other words, to make early voting as difficult as possible.
Many of the boards took Woodhouse's advice: as the N&O reported earlier this month, twenty-three county boards voted to reduce early voting hours from 2012, and nine that had Sunday voting in 2012 cut that out altogether.
Not coincidentally, Sunday voting—and early voting in general—is popular with African Americans. In 2012, according to data cited in the Fourth Circuit's ruling, 64 percent of North Carolina African Americans voted early, compared to 49 percent of whites.
But under state law, county election plans need unanimous approval from all three members in order to be final; thirty-three of the state's one hundred counties weren't able to reach a consensus, so the question was referred to the state Board of Elections.
This all set the stage for an eleven-hour-plus marathon NCBOE meeting last Thursday, when the board reviewed early voting schedules for a third of the state's counties, including Wake and Orange.
The state board, comprising three Republicans and two Democrats, could accept the county board's Republican plan, the minority Democratic plan, or create its own. (Orange County actually offered four plans—one created by each board member and a compromise. The state board went with the compromise, after adding a few tweaks.)
In Wake County, Eddie Woodhouse and fellow Republican Ellis Boyle voted in favor of a plan that would have opened just one early voting site countywide in the first ten days of early voting. Neither Republican showed up to the meeting on Thursday.
Democrat Mark Ezzell, who voted against the plan, did, bringing along a lawyer to make his case. In the end, he got his way: the state board approved a proposal that opened nine sites throughout the county for all seventeen days of early voting and added another eleven sites for the last ten days. (Early voting starts on October 20 and ends on November 5.)
Wake Democrats were happy with the decision.
"More Wake County voters will have the opportunity to cast their ballot at a time and place that is convenient to them," says Wake County Democratic Party chairman Brian Fitzsimmons. "That's a good thing, no matter how you spin it."
Some other counties weren't as lucky. In coastal New Hanover County—where, as WRAL noted, 44 percent of Sunday voters in the March primary were African American—the state board declined to offer Sunday voting. The same goes for Orange County.
In all likelihood, however, this won't be the end of the battle; the Reverend William J. Barber II, the state leader of the NAACP, told reporters Friday that his group is considering litigation.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Game the System"