North Carolina voters are once again dealing with changes to how the state runs its elections. At a time when early voting is becoming increasingly popular nationwide, a new law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature will result in nearly 20 percent fewer places to cast votes before Election Day.
Democrats say the changes could disproportionately affect African-American voters, but some local Republican officials also complain about the changes, arguing they impose too much top-down control on election administration and amount to an unfunded mandate from the state.
The state's 17-day early voting period, which starts Wednesday, is extremely popular. More than 60 percent of North Carolina voters cast an early ballot in the 2016 election, according to the state's board of elections.
In Gaston County, just west of Charlotte, Elections Director Adam Ragan said the county cut its early voting locations from five to three as a result of the law, which was passed in June. The law requires all sites within a county to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week. Previously, counties, which are responsible for administering elections, had leeway to set the number of hours early voting sites could be open.
"I would have loved to have had more early voting locations," Ragan said. "It came down to having more locations, helping more voters versus our fiduciary responsibilities to the county."
North Carolina has been ground zero in the partisan voting wars of the past decade. Since 2010, a number of laws passed by the Republican-controlled legislature on voter ID, redistricting and early voting have been struck down by courts at various points.
When the legislature debated the early voting law in June, Democratic state Rep. Amos Quick said the requirement that if one early voting site is open on the weekend, all the rest of a county's sites also have to be open could discourage counties from holding any weekend hours.
"Weekend early voting has been preferred ... by certain populations," Quick said, referring to African-American voters. "Certain populations whose right to vote who has not only been highlighted but has been protected in recent court decisions."
In 2016, a federal appeals court ruled a 2013 state law that cut early voting by a week and got rid of same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting targeted African-Americans with "surgical precision."
The three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that GOP lawmakers asked for racial data about the breakdown of early voting usage, and after learning that more African-Americans, who generally back Democrats, voted early compared to white voters, they changed the bill to eliminate the first week of early voting.
Republican state Rep. David Lewis, who championed the most recent changes to early voting this summer, said during debate on the bill that minimizing confusion for voters was the goal.
"What we set out with the intention to do is to be able to make it more reliable and dependable that the voters would know that the early voting site or sites in their county was open from a set time in the morning to a set time in the evening," he said, also pointing out that across the state, early voting sites will be open for a longer number of total hours.
While Republicans in the state's powerful legislature back the law, at the county level, the law has run into some bipartisan opposition.
"Frustrated is the word that I would use," said Ron Wyatt, the chair of the Iredell County GOP. The county, located north of Charlotte, has cut its early voting sites in half as a result of the law.
Wyatt argues the law contradicts Republicans' general emphasis on local control and he says it translates as an unfunded mandate for counties.
Rural counties with smaller election budgets like Iredell are disproportionately affected by this change. While individual voting locations may be open longer, there will be 17 percent fewer sites this election, according to the state board of elections.
For voters, convenience trumps longer hours, said Charles Stewart III, an MIT political scientist who studies voting administration.
"There's a lot of research that suggests that whenever a polling place moves further away from a voter, they are less likely to vote there," Stewart said.
Stewart hypothesized that the new law could shift turnout voting from the early voting period to Election Day, which could mean longer lines at the polls.
In a state where voting rights have become such a political hot potato, election officials say they are used to adapting on short notice.
"Due to court cases, legislation, all of that kind of thing factors in," said Becky Galliher, the elections director in Iredell County. "It just seems like we always have something each election that takes us in a different direction."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This fall's election comes in several parts. Before the fight to win votes, there is a fight over who is allowed to vote. In Georgia, the Republican candidate for governor also heads the office that has been purging voter rolls. And then there's the fight over how people may vote.
Early voting starts today in North Carolina. It is so popular that more than half of North Carolina votes were cast early in 2016. For 2018, lawmakers altered the rules in ways that could lower turnout. Here's Alexandra Olgin of member station WFAE.
ALEXANDRA OLGIN, BYLINE: To prepare for early voting, elections director Adam Ragan in Gaston County, just west of Charlotte, is testing voting machines by running sample ballots through them.
(SOUNDBITE OF VOTING MACHINE BEEPING)
OLGIN: These machines were meant to be in five early voting locations throughout the county, but the new law requires all sites within a county to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week. And as a result, Ragan can only open three sites this election.
ADAM RAGAN: Early voting is very popular in Gaston County, and I would have loved to have more early voting locations. It came down to having more locations, you know, helping more voters versus our fiduciary responsibilities to the county.
OLGIN: Some Democratic lawmakers see this as another attack on voting rights in a state where voter ID, redistricting and early voting rules have all been struck down by the courts at various points in the last few years. During a June debate about early voting, Democratic State Representative Amos Quick said the requirement that if one site is open on the weekend, the rest also have to be, could discourage counties from having any weekend hours.
AMOS QUICK: Weekend early voting has been preferred and has been preferred by certain populations, and certain populations whose right to vote has not only been highlighted but has been protected in a recent court decision.
OLGIN: He's referring to black voters. An appeals court ruled a 2013 law, that among other things, cut early voting by a week, targeted African-Americans with, quote, "surgical precision." But Republicans who champion this law argue they're only trying to minimize confusion. Here's State Representative David Lewis, also during the June debate.
DAVID LEWIS: What we set out with the intention to do is to be able to make it more reliable and dependable, that the voters would know that the early voting site or sites in their county was open from a set time in the morning to a set time in the evening.
OLGIN: The law has some bipartisan opposition. Ron Wyatt is the Republican party chair of Iredell County, about 50 miles north of Charlotte. The county has had to cut its early voting sites in half.
RON WYATT: Frustrated is the word that I would use.
OLGIN: And he says even though this may not seem like an unfunded mandate...
WYATT: That's exactly what it translates to being at the end of the day.
OLGIN: Rural counties with smaller election budgets, like Iredell, are disproportionately affected by this change. While individual locations may be open longer, there will be 17 percent fewer sites this election. MIT political scientist Charles Stewart III says that for voters, convenience trumps hours.
CHARLES STEWART III: And there's a lot of research that's been done that suggests that whenever you move a polling place further away from a voter, they're less likely to vote there.
OLGIN: Stewart says the rule change could simply shift turnout to Election Day, which could mean longer lines at the polls. In a state where voting rights have become such a political hot potato, elections officials say they just go with the flow. Becky Galliher is the elections director in Iredell County.
BECKY GALLIHER: Due to court cases, legislation - all of that kind of thing factors in. And it just seems like we always have something each election that takes us in a different direction.
OLGIN: The question remains, will voters adapt as easily? For NPR News, I'm Alex Olgin.
(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "NO SUGAR NO CREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.