RALEIGH — The State Board of Elections on Thursday approved an early voting plan for Robeson County that reduces voting hours from the 2012 election, but has more polling sites open.
The board voted unanimously to approve the bipartisan plan during an 11-hour hearing that settled debates over early voting plans in 33 counties. Robeson County had submitted two plans — one, the plan ultimately approved with some changes, supported by Robeson County Elections Board Chairman Steve Stone and board member Tiffany-Peguise Powers, and a second plan supported by board member Daniel Locklear.
The approved plan opens six polling sites throughout the county and includes some Sunday voting hours, which Locklear’s did not. Polls will be open at the state-required Board of Elections office in Lumberton, as well as Pembroke, Red Springs, Fairmont, Maxton and St. Pauls. Overall, the plan reduces early voting hours by 348 in the 2012 election to to 323 hours.
The plan sent up by the county had included more hours toward the beginning of the early voting period. State board members, reviewing the voting patterns of Robeson County residents, decided to shift some of those hours to the end of the early voting period, when more people tend to vote. Specific hours weren’t immediately available.
The state board is expected to forward its rulings to all 33 county boards this afternoon. Robeson County elections officials did not attend the packed hearing and were unaware this morning of the state board’s determination. The Robesonian reviewed a videotape of the hearing for this story.
Robeson’s plan was discussed briefly by the state, with members expressing several times that they wished someone was there to represent Robeson County. State board member Josh Malcolm, who is from Pembroke, answered several questions about the demographics of the county.
“Maybe there’s a good lesson for my friends in Robeson County here, they should be here to answer our questions,” Malcolm said.
Stone said this morning that county elections officials would follow any instructions from the state board. Elections Board Director G.L. Pridgen said no one at the county office was available to attend the hearing.
“My concern was verification of voters because we are no longer requiring a photo ID,” Stone said. “Putting less hours at the beginning would give us more time to verify voters. We felt that would be best for the geographic and social issues facing our county. We are trying to maintain the integrity of our elections.”
County boards statewide have been tasked with determining their own early voting plans since the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this summer threw out several portions of a 2013 ballot access law such as voter ID and limiting early in-person voting to cover 10 days. Now it’s back to 17 days and county boards had to present new plans. The judges said Republican legislators had acted with discriminatory intent against black voters in an effort to depress Democratic turnout by passing rules with “almost surgical precision.”
State board members Thursday were wary of eliminating Sunday voting in counties that used it in 2012 out of concern attorneys that sued over the 2013 law would go back to court and complain the board wasn’t following the spirit of the ruling. The court had emphasized how scaling back early voting days meant removing the opportunity for some Sunday voting popular with black residents and predominantly black churches through “souls to the polls” efforts. Sixty-seven North Carolina counties have already agreed upon one early voting plan.
Chris Brook, an attorney with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he and other attorneys would have to wade through Thursday’s outcomes before deciding whether to seek remedial help from the federal courts.
“We’re going to look at whether North Carolina voters who rely on early voting are being served by these plans,” Brook said in an interview, adding that while they were improvements, there are “also a lot of instances where there’s not been those sorts of positive steps.”
State Board Chairman Grant Whitney, a Republican, declined to speak with reporters Thursday night after the meeting. Although concerned about a couple of Sunday voting decisions, Malcolm said by and large the board did “its very best to interpret and make a good faith effort to comply with the law and especially in this case the 4th Circuit.”
Managing Editor Sarah Willets, staff writer Bob Shiles and Associated Press writers Gary D. Robertson and Jonathan Drew contributed to this report.