RALEIGH — Two plans for early voting in Robeson County will be heard by the state Board of Elections today, along with plans submitted by 32 other counties that could not agree on how many hours and sites to offer during the early voting period ahead of the November election.
The Robeson County Board of Elections last month sent the two plans to the state after a federal appeals court struck down a 2013 election law that reduced the early voting period from 17 to 10 days and required voters to present a photo ID at the polls. With that law struck down, county boards were tasked with determining what hours polls will be open, but have to offer 17 days of early voting as previously required. Sixty-seven counties have already given unanimous approval to an early voting plan.
Robeson County’s three board members were divided on how many polling sites the county should have open during those 17 days.
Steve Stone, the GOP chairman of the board, and Democrat Tiffany Peguise-Powers favor having six early voting sites, while Daniel Locklear, a second Republican on the board, submitted a plan calling for four polling sites.
Under Stone and Powers’ plan, the six sites would include the state-required Board of Elections office in Lumberton, as well as Pembroke, Red Springs, Fairmont, Maxton and St. Pauls. In Locklear’s plan, early voters could cast ballots in Lumberton, St. Pauls, Pembroke and Fairmont.
During the early voting period for the March primary, polls were open in Lumberton, Pembroke, Fairmont and Maxton.
The hearing was set to begin at 10 a.m. today in Raleigh and a tentative schedule shows Robeson 16th out of 33.
Voting rights activists are watching closely and preparing to return to court if the board makes it harder for reliably Democratic voters to cast ballots. They say this would violate a federal appellate ruling that found Republican leaders intentionally discriminated against blacks with a 2013 law designed to keep the GOP in power despite being outnumbered.
Republican leaders deny they’re discriminating against anyone, and say Democrats are seeking to regain their own advantage by criticizing plans that were re-drawn in response to the July 29 ruling.
Democrats have been deeply suspicious since Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the state Republican Party, emailed GOP activists after the ruling to pressure each county board’s Republicans to limit early voting hours, curtail Sunday voting and avoid placing voting sites on college campuses.
“Remind them that as partisan Republican appointees they have duty to consider Republican points of view and that we support them as they ensure our elections are secure,” Woodhouse wrote.
North Carolina’s accumulation of voting restrictions was among the nation’s most severe until the court gutted the 2013 law, which had reduced early voting by a week and required the kinds of photo IDs that minorities, students and poor people are less likely to carry and keep up to date.
“Winning an election does not empower anyone in any party to engage in purposeful racial discrimination,” the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said. “When a legislature dominated by one party has dismantled barriers to African American access to the franchise, even if done to gain votes, ‘politics as usual’ does not allow a legislature dominated by the other party to re-erect those barriers.”
The governor’s party has appointed majorities on the state board and the boards of all 100 North Carolina counties under a law approved in 1953, when Democrats were in charge. But Republicans rule now in North Carolina, a presidential battleground where 56 percent of ballots in November 2012 were cast during the early voting period. Black voters and Democrats use early voting at higher rates than others.
Managing editor Sarah Willets contributed to this report.