The conference room at the Wake County Board of Elections building in downtown Raleigh was filled to capacity last Thursday evening. People who couldn't get in lingered in the doorway as, one after another, voters implored the three board members not to limit early voting. There were horror stories of voters fainting after waiting in line for hours on Election Day. There were comments about the logistical mess that is curbside voting. And there were a few common requests.
One was to keep a voting site on N.C. State's campus to serve west-central Raleigh and offer the more than thirty-six thousand students and faculty a convenient place to cast their ballots. In the 2012 general election, more than sixteen thousand people cast early ballots at the Talley Student Union. Likewise, speakers asked the board to keep a polling site at Chavis Park that has traditionally served Raleigh's African-American population; more than twenty-one thousand people voted at Chavis in 2012. A third request was to maintain Sunday hours for early voting, a voting day that has been popular among African-Americans.
For the most part, the speakers got what they wanted. The board settled on a plan to open nineteen early voting sites—including Chavis and N.C. State's Creative Services center—during working hours on weekdays and a few hours on the weekend, for a total of 1,659 early-voting hours. That's one hour more than the minimum required by state law.
"It could have been worse," says Wake County Democratic Party chairman Brian Fitzsimmons.
But the politics of the exercise were clear. The board's chairman, Brian Ratledge, favored not having an early voting site on State's campus because, he said, a site in Raleigh's Method neighborhood would serve more people. He also opposed Sunday voting. Ellis Boyle, meanwhile, floated the idea of not having a site at Chavis, a suggestion he walked back after it drew audible opposition from the audience. Both Ratledge and Boyle are Republicans; Mark Ezzell is the board's lone Democrat.
In his comments, Fitzsimmons reminded the board members that—in a state where people have to present an ID to vote and the number of early voting days was cut in 2013 from seventeen to ten—their charge is to make voting "as easy as possible."
Wake GOP chairman John Bryant didn't attend the meeting, but he submitted a statement asking for fewer early-voting days. Voting, he said, "should not impose upon [poll workers'] Sunday day of rest and worship when the hours to early vote are already so many and the locations where the voting can occur has expanded greatly throughout the county since prior elections have been in such fewer locations."
Wake's board, like each county board of elections in North Carolina, consists of two Republicans and one Democrat. Since 1985, the boards' majorities have been determined by the party of the governor. County parties nominate appointees who are then approved by the State Board of Elections. Members serve two-year terms—and, as last week's hearing in Raleigh demonstrated, they have an enormous say over how easy or difficult it is to cast your ballot.
North Carolina's system differs from that of thirty-eight other states, whose elections are overseen by a usually elected secretary of state. The Tar Heel model has leant itself to partisan bias. For example, Watauga County's board of elections tried to block Appalachian State University as an early voting site in 2014; a Wake County Superior Court judge later ruled that the move appeared to be designed to discourage students—a traditionally liberal bloc—from voting.
"There could be a nonpartisan appointed board, and that would be best," says Bob Phillips, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog Common Cause North Carolina. "It does seem a little awkward that the party of the governor prevails statewide, which does not truly reflect the nature of the county. A Democratic governor serving Republican counties may not be in line with the county, and same thing for Durham or Orange under a Republican."
But Phillips adds that Common Cause is not currently pushing legislation to alter the system. "I don't see, with the legislature we have, changing anything anytime soon," he says. "There's not much appetite for a government proposal to make them as nonpartisan as possible."
Several lawsuits brought on by the 2013 elections law—which critics allege was designed to depress student and minority turnout and thus help Republicans—are pending in federal court, so the Wake County board's early-voting plans are subject to change.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Politics of N.C. Elections"