Dozens of North Carolina counties slash early voting weeks before Election Day

Rev. Dr. William Barber (center) and other voting rights activists. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
Rev. Dr. William Barber (center) and other voting rights activists. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Lenoir County near North Carolina’s eastern shore is more than 40 percent black, and there are more than double the number of registered Democrats than Republicans.

But its Board of Elections is controlled by white Republicans, who recently voted to slash the number of early voting sites from four to one, and only open that location during weekday businesses hours and a couple of hours on Saturday morning.

The Republican board members said cutting the number of early voting hours by more than three-quarters would save the county money and allow them to “monitor voter fraud more effectively,” though extensive studies in North Carolina and across the country have found in-person voter fraud to be nearly non-existent.

Lenoir County is one of dozens of Republican-controlled counties effectively defying a July court ruling that blocked North Carolina’s plan to cut early voting on the grounds the move intentionally targeted black voters — who depend on early voting — with “surgical precision.”

The sole black and Democratic election board member in Lenoir County, Courtney Patterson, called the move “equal to voter suppression in its worst way,” and is filing his own minority report calling for six early voting locations and many additional hours, including on Sunday.

“Because we have so many working-class voters in our county, it is critical that we offer some evening and weekend hours to enable those voters to participate in early voting,” he wrote, noting that under the Republican plan, voters living on the county’s rural edges would have to drive 45 minutes each way in order to cast a ballot.

On Thursday, the majority-Republican state Board of Elections will weigh the fate of early voting in Lenoir and 32 other counties where Republicans and Democrats have clashed on when, where, and how people can vote early.

Voters unhappy with their final decision can then challenge the plans in court. But with early voting set to begin in some counties on October 22, time is running out.

The counties under review hold more than three million voters in the key swing state of North Carolina, meaning the outcome of the election board hearing could decide whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump sits in the White House next year.

CREDIT: AP Photo
CREDIT: AP Photo

After spending millions of dollars defending their voting restrictions in court, and losing, the North Carolina Republican Party tried to find a way around the federal ruling. They sent a confidential memo to the boards of elections in the state’s 100 counties urging them cut early voting, which they said was “in the best interest of the party.”

Since that memo went out, 23 Republican-controlled counties have cut early voting hours, some by more than three-quarters. Nine have eliminated Sunday voting. Many counties also voted to eliminate early voting locations on college campuses, including North Carolina’s historically black universities. The three North Carolina counties with the highest percentages of African Americans will also see their early voting opportunities drastically reduced.

Rev. Dr. William Barber, the president of the NAACP in North Carolina, told ThinkProgress on Tuesday that Republicans are “trying to narrow the electorate, because they know they can’t win if there’s a broad electorate.”

“The goal of early voting is to ensure that poor people who can’t get off work during regular hours will be able to exercise their right to vote in a democracy,” Barber said. “Something is morally wrong with you if you are working to suppress and undermine the vote.”

“Something is morally wrong with you if you are working to suppress and undermine the vote.”

The question of Sunday voting has been particularly contentious. The North Carolina GOP memo urged counties to eliminate it, out of “respect for voters’ religious preferences, protection of our families and allowing the fine election staff a day off.”

But Sunday voting has been a major boon for African American communities over the past few elections, as churches have mobilized to help their congregants cast ballots early. Barber explained that many black churches do this in honor of Bloody Sunday — the day in 1965 where black activists demanding voting rights were clubbed and tear-gassed by police in Selma, Alabama. “If we were beat on a Sunday and bloodied on a Sunday, we should be able to cast our ballot on a Sunday,” he said.

Reverend Traci Blackmon from Ferguson, Missouri, who works with Barber on voting rights and economic justice, added that Sunday voting is crucial for her lower-income neighbors.

“If you work a minimum wage job, or more than one, since you can’t live off of the salary of one, it is hard for you to get time off to vote even if the law says they’re supposed to let you off,” she said. “In the last presidential election, we drove someone to the polls who had not voted in the last four elections, simply because he did not have transportation. We took people who could walk or couldn’t see. So it matters. If we want everyone’s voice to be heard, we should be making it easy to get to the polls.”

Nine North Carolina counties that offered Sunday voting in 2012 voted to eliminate it this year. Twelve counties voted to keep Sunday voting. Four counties that did not provide it in past elections will add it for this November.