RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The swing state of North Carolina could be pushed in a Republican or Democratic direction when the GOP-led State Board of Elections meets Thursday to finalize early voting plans for a third of the state's counties.
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 African-Americans with a 2013 law designed to keep the GOP in power despite being outnumbered.
"For three years the NAACP and its partners have fought for this moment to come, and certain people with the boards of elections locally and statewide do not wish to recognize that it's our time and our vote," said Deborah Dicks Maxwell, the NAACP chairwoman in New Hanover County.
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 offered opposing plans, setting up disputes in a third of North Carolina's 100 counties that now must be resolved by the state board, which has a 3-2 Republican majority.
Democrats should "quit whining, put on your uniform and play the game," state GOP Chairman Robin Hayes said Tuesday.
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. Those rules were voided by the court, which ordered state authorities to return to 17 days of early in-person voting.
"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.
Political motivations commonly sway local voting rules, but the action of some of North Carolina boards "seems to really fly in the face of the court order," said Michael McDonald, an elections expert at the University of Florida.
If the state board doesn't overrule these changes, "there's a real risk here that the court is going to take punitive action against the state of North Carolina," potentially even including a return to federal oversight, he said.
New Hanover is among the 33 counties whose rules remain in dispute. The two Republican board members voted to eliminate Sunday voting and limit early voting hours to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. The board's Democrat would include after-work hours on weekdays and keep sites open on Sundays, when African-American churches drive members to vote in "souls to the polls" events.
Despite the conflicts, 67 rewritten plans were unanimously approved, many of them offering more voting hours than in 2012.
But Allison Riggs, one of the lawyers who successfully challenged the 2013 law, said advocates are monitoring 10 to 20 counties where Republicans are still proposing barriers. She cites Northampton County along the Virginia border, where 10,000 of the 14,000 registered voters are Democrats and 8,600 are black. Census data show 26 percent of the people live in poverty.
The sole Democrat, Vivian Branch, would open four polling sites, one more than in 2012. She said the Republicans — Charles Youse and Vickie Evans — would open just one early voting site, in the county seat of Jackson, a 45-minute car ride from some parts of the county, if people have access to a car. They did not return messages seeking comment.
"It's a hardship for people to come all the way to Jackson if they live on either end of the county," said Branch, a retired school principal. "Most of our people are probably low income. We need to be considerate of our people and do the best that we can so they can vote without a lot of hardship."
Some Republicans have pushed back against pressure to give their party an edge.
In Cumberland County, where about half the 200,000 voters are Democrat and a quarter are Republican, board member Kevin Hight restored an early voting site in a predominantly black neighborhood that he omitted from an earlier draft of his plan. A civics teacher for 30 years, Hight said he never wanted to suppress anyone's ability to vote.
"I've won awards for my efforts on civic education and civic involvement. Why would I go against something my entire career has been about? I was trying to be nonpartisan," he told the AP, reacting to what he called the "ridiculous email from Dallas Woodhouse."
"I understood what he was trying to say, but I didn't agree with many of the points," Hight said. "I'm not a puppet of the state Republican Party. I can think for myself."