Despite North Carolina vote changes, groups may go to court


RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — In a case that could affect voter turnout in a presidential battleground state, an alliance of activists and Democrats scored some successes this week in persuading North Carolina officials to curb local Republican efforts to scale back early voting hours this fall, particularly in areas with high minority and Democratic populations.

But it’s not yet clear whether the State Board of Elections’ response will satisfy them.

“It was a positive day for voters,” Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a voting reform group, said Friday about actions by the State Board of Elections the day before. Despite some setbacks, Hall added, “there were many successes.”

However, lawyers for the activists and local Democrats are reviewing the state board’s decisions about early in-person voting in 33 counties and weighing whether to seek more fixes in court.

A federal appeals court ruled in July that North Carolina GOP lawmakers engaged in intentional discrimination against black voters through a 2013 ballot access law that required voter ID and reduced the number of early voting days to 10. Early voting is used disproportionately by Democrats and by black voters.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling ended voter ID and restored 17 days of in-person voting, but it still left details of the 17-day schedule in the hands of local election boards, where Republicans hold majorities. Those board members had been urged by state GOP leaders to discourage broad early-vote expansions.

The State Board of Elections stepped in Thursday in counties where local boards disagreed — usually along party lines — on dates, times and sites. That’s about one-third of the state’s counties.

The GOP-controlled state board preserved at least some Sunday voting in several counties where it had been used in 2012, and where local GOP officials attempted to eliminate it. The appeals court specifically noted that Sunday voting is popular with black voters and with predominantly black churches that operate souls to the polls” efforts.

The board would have to offer a good justification for getting rid of it, said state board member James Baker, a Republican, before agreeing to restore Sunday voting hours in Cumberland County, home to Fort Bragg. “When it’s been in existence for us to cut it out completely, we have to have a good reason for doing that.”

The state board rejected local Republican efforts to drastically reduce or limit voting hours and sites in small, majority-black counties, but also expanded hours in and around Raleigh to deal with throngs of presidential-year voters.

“I was very glad to see that some of the most egregious problems were corrected,” said Anita Earls with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, whose group sued over the 2013 law.

But Earls and the Democrats and voting rights lawyers said they were disappointed the board failed to expand Sunday voting to more counties and provide even more sites to handle expected massive numbers of early voters in Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County, home to 10 percent of the state’s electorate. The attorneys also noted the board in some cases backed Republican voting schedules when Democratic alternatives would have offered many more hours.

Republicans “were reluctant to expand the franchise even though there were plans that increased hours for people to vote,” said Irving Joyner, an attorney representing the state NAACP — one of the groups that sued over the 2013 law. “They could have done better.”

Joyner, Earls and their colleagues in the litigation said Friday they were reviewing the board’s decisions before determining whether to ask a court to fix early-voting schedules that the board declined to address. But Joyner said the NAACP may decide to focus its resources on get-out-the-vote efforts, rather than going to court to seek a few more hours of early voting.

Any legal actions must happen soon. While early voting begins Oct. 20, counties began mailing absentee ballots Friday to the first people who requested them. Those returned ballots must be counted on early-voting tabulators and need to be coded based on early voting decisions.

It remains to be seen how adjustments to early voting plans could affect North Carolina’s election outcomes this fall.

“Offering some but not the most generous (options) of early voting might stop some people from voting, but it just might shift that voting to different days,” Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine, said this week. “The turnout question is a very difficult one.”

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Associated Press writer Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

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