GOP-led NC panel finds early voting compromise amid protests

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — A Republican-led panel considered but ultimately shelved an early voting plan Monday that could have made casting ballots more difficult for college students and black residents in North Carolina’s third most populous county, despite federal court orders to undo what’s been ruled a discriminatory ballot access law.

A raucous crowd of 300 people packed the Guilford County Board of Elections meeting, determined to be heard in opposition to the Republican chairwoman’s proposal, which would have cut a dozen early voting sites while complying with the letter of the appellate ruling.

“Any governing body has a definite need to hear from the people. … They spoke loudly to be heard enough,” said Mazie Ferguson of Greensboro, one of the protesters, who believes their vocal opposition made a difference.

The panel’s two Republicans and one Democrat huddled, then decided unanimously to back a compromise plan that kept early voting sites open at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and historically black NC A&T State University, as well as within a predominantly black neighborhood.

“I think that everybody wants the same thing that we as the board want, which is for there to be significant access to the voting process for all members of Guilford County,” board Chairwoman Kathryn Lindley told reporters after the vote.

All 100 counties in North Carolina must propose new ballot-access plans by the end of next week, to comply with the appellate ruling in time for the November elections.

In addition to striking down the law’s voter ID requirements, the July 29 ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals orders early voting expanded to 17 days, from 10 in the 2013 law. But the court did not specify the number or location of early voting sites.

Voting ahead of Election Day is popular in North Carolina, particularly among people whose jobs or other circumstances make it difficult to reach their assigned voting site on a Tuesday, so these changes are being watched closely by community activists, lawyers and officials of both major parties.

Some worry that people — including minorities, college students and the poor who find it difficult to travel — could still find voting difficult in North Carolina, a presidential battleground state with other hotly contested races this year.

Attorneys for the groups that successfully sued to overturn the law wrote last week to the State Board of Elections suggesting more legal action is possible if counties create plans that look like “intentional action taken to suppress voting this November.”

Kim Strach, the state board executive director, wrote county boards last week strongly encouraging local officials “to be mindful of expected turnout and historical use of one-stop early voting in their respective counties.” Past election data show 56 percent of all voters this fall will use early voting, Strach wrote.

Since Gov. Pat McCrory is a Republican, the state board and all the county boards have Republican majorities, and the state board makes final decisions when county boards don’t reach unanimous agreements.

The agreement by Guilford County’s board came after a midday march by protesters who jammed into the meeting room in Greensboro. Many in the crowd shouted when it appeared the GOP proposal could go forward and no public comments were taken.

“Stop suppressing the vote. Stop suppressing the vote,” people chanted as board members huddled to work through the compromise. They later sang “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a favored civil rights-era song.

The Guilford plan keeps 25 sites open for the previously approved 10 days, but extends voting for an additional seven days, starting Oct. 20, in a room near the county elections board office. The compromise also adds up to more hours of voting compared to 2012.

Democracy North Carolina, a voting rights group, is cautiously optimistic about Monday’s agreement, but having only one voting location during the first week likely will result in longer lines on Election Day, group spokeswoman Jen Jones said.

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