Almost a third of North Carolina's 100 counties have received permission from the State Board of Elections to reduce early-voting hours heading into the May 6 primary below what last year's elections overhaul law demanded of them.
The law, pushed through by state Republican leaders, remains a divisive issue with legal challenges as the upcoming primary provides a key test of how new rules will work before the November general election.
The law actually decreased the number of early-voting days leading to an election from 17 days to 10, but it came with a qualification. Counties would still have to offer at least the same number of cumulative hours for people to vote ahead of election day — compared to the 2010 primary.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory had defended the divisive elections law, which also includes photo ID requirements and no more same-day registration during early voting, in part by pointing repeatedly to the hourly requirement. It's supposed to make counties expand daily voting hours or open additional voting sites during the 10-day period.
"We didn't shorten early voting. We compacted the calendar, but we're going to have the same hours in which polls are open in early voting and we're going to have more polls available," McCrory said on CNN's "Crossfire" program earlier this week. "In fact, the legislation does not shorten the hours for early voting."
But more than 30 counties have used an exception in the law to get around the hour requirement for the first election under new in-person absentee voting rules. The exemption can happen only if members of the requesting county's election board and the state board agree unanimously — both Democrats and Republicans.
Election officials in rural counties seeking a change said they can handle their small number of early voters with fewer hours compared to the 2010 primary election. Early voting is April 24 through May 3. Races for U.S. Senate and House and General Assembly seats are on the ballot among others.
State Board of Elections Chairman Josh Howard said he doesn't believe the exceptions granted will reduce access to the ballot box for people voting early out of convenience or necessity.
At meetings in December and last week, the state board either approved the counties' schedules or required adjustments to ensure voting is allowed until 7 p.m. at least on the Thursday and Friday before the primary to ensure more people can come after work or dinner to vote. A handful of additional counties are expected to seek exemptions next week.
"I'm not about to interfere with that from Raleigh, if otherwise it's reasonable," Howard, a Republican appointee, said in an interview. "For them to petition us for the reduction, it's got to be unanimous."
The requirement works like this: a county with two early-voting sites for the 2010 primary and opened for 14 days for eight hours per day, for example, had 224 cumulative hours during the period. The county must either lengthen hours or set up an additional early voting site to accumulate 224 hours within 10 days. But with an exemption, sites can be open for fewer than 224 total hours.
A critic of the election overhaul law is worried the exceptions reflect the difficulties counties have ahead in complying with an unfunded mandate that Republicans insist won't harm voting rights. Similar requests could be sought for the 2014 general election, or the 2016 elections, when more people vote in races for governor and president and higher numbers of hours must be met.
"It sets a dangerous precedent forward in elections that have more value," said Allison Riggs, an attorney representing the League of Women Voters of North Carolina. The league is pressing a lawsuit challenging the elections overhaul law, which also includes a photo ID requirement and the end of same-day registration during early voting.
McCrory "respectfully disagrees" with the unanimous decisions made by the boards, spokesman Josh Ellis said.
"As more citizens participate in the upcoming November elections, the governor encourages both Republican and Democratic board members to reject all waivers for the general election in all 100 counties," Ellis said by email.
In Martin County, where more than 1,300 people voted early in-person for the 2010 primary, elections officials received a variance to reduce the total hours from the required 113 to just under 90. Election officials in Graham County got a similar reduction.
"The board believes that providing 85 cumulative hours will sufficiently accommodate Graham County voters while staying within our budget," wrote county elections director Teresa Garland. The law required 104 hours.
During the bill's debate last July, senators agreed to an amendment offered by Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, requiring the same cumulative number of hours or more in the shorter early voting period. Another amendment sponsored by Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, allowed the exemption. All Democrats present ended up voting against the law's final version.
Stein said his amendment was designed to mitigate a bad law and criticized the mass exceptions. "I'm not happy to hear counties are reducing people's opportunities to vote," he added.
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