Could North Carolina’s super-sized precincts slow voting?

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The popularity of in-person early voting in North Carolina has allowed officials to defer action on several hundred bulging precincts that otherwise would slow Election Day voting to a snail’s pace.

Forty-eight percent of the state’s 6.6 million registered voters now live in voting precincts with at least 3,000 voters — an important threshold in a previous state study — compared to 43 percent four years ago, according to an election reform group’s analysis. More than one-quarter of voters are in precincts with at least 4,000 voters, most in urban or high-growth suburban counties.

“We now have super-sized precincts in North Carolina,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina.

Early voting sites are relief valves to take in voters from these large precincts. So the adequacy of North Carolina’s early voting plans in light of extra-large precincts has gained attention as a federal appeals court last month struck down the state’s 2013 voter ID law approved by Republicans. The decision also ordered the early voting period cover 17 days again, compared to 10 under the canceled law.

Counties have until next Friday to rework their early voting schedules. But they’re under no obligation, like under the old law, to provide at least the same number of cumulative hours of early voting as in 2012. State officials are asking county election boards — controlled by the GOP — to think long and hard before reducing early voting locations and hours in light of heavy expected turnout in the presidential battleground state. Otherwise, some big precincts could see extra-long lines Nov. 8.

Combined with impassioned views over the 2013 law, otherwise ordinary election board meetings have become flashpoints for voting rights.

“The right to vote’s a big deal,” said Jim Kimel, a Democratic elections board member in Guilford County, where a boisterous crowd of 300 attended a meeting last week on the early voting schedule. “I would hope there would be a lot of emotion about it. It’s not like we’re deciding whether we’ll serve lemonade or tea.”

Initially used in 2000, early voting, also known as “one-stop voting,” comprised 56 percent of the votes cast in the 2012 general election.

“Voting during one-stop is critical to alleviate those Election Day lines,” said Derek Bowens, elections director in New Hanover County, where two-thirds of its precincts report at least 3,000 voters.

At a news conference this past week urging approval of robust 17-day early voting plans, Hall said he was worried because it’s the first presidential election without straight-ticket voting — marking a ballot once to vote for a party’s slate of candidates, except for president. Since more than 2.5 million voters cast straight-ticket ballots in 2012, individual voting times may be longer.

Based on recent history, two-thirds of registered voters will cast ballots this fall.

“Because of the success of early voting, election officials have not been breaking up precincts to add more Election Day polling sites,” Hall said. “If counties don’t offer plenty of weekend and evening hours at accessible polling places, we’ll see a disastrous train wreck at the polls this November.”

State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach said election officials rolled out uniform precinct procedures this year designed to increase efficiencies and are urging counties to manage their voting equipment and staff to help reduce wait times. Strach said she’s optimistic counties will base early voting decisions on hard data so that voters are accommodated.

“We’ve been doing our best to cut down lines in every way we can,” she said.

As for precinct size, Strach’s office is complying with a law approved by the General Assembly asking to have developed by December a new statewide voting map with what will become precincts in 2018. The map must take into consideration “reasonable size limitations” by populations of those precincts, the law says.

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