RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's Republican-controlled Board of Elections took a measured approach Thursday to settling local quarrels over early voting plans, refusing to expand voting on Sundays this fall but increasing access to the ballot in counties where GOP proposals seemed too limiting.
After a federal appeals court this summer found Republican legislators acted with discriminatory intent against black voters in an effort to depress Democratic turnout with a 2013 law, board members had to approve new proposals for early voting dates, hours and locations in a third of the state's 100 counties.
A standing-room-only crowd paid close attention, and by the time two dozen of the redrawn plans were approved early Thursday evening, some trends had emerged.
In many cases, the state board favored plans made by a majority of each county's board — almost always two Republicans — over the Democratic alternative. But the state board did approve some Sunday voting in three counties that already had it in the 2012 presidential election. The board also found bipartisan agreement on other plans to expand the cumulative hours of early voting, especially in growing urban areas.
These minor adjustments could have an outsized impact in the presidential battleground state, which also has a closely fought governor's race and other statewide elections this November. Democrats have traditionally been more likely than Republicans to cast early in-person ballots. Black voters also disproportionately use early voting.
Predominantly black churches have traditionally driven members to vote in "souls to the polls" efforts on Sundays, and the 4th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals found that the state's Republican leaders used provisions in the law with "almost surgical precision" to gain an edge by limiting these and other ways of voting.
In its July 29 ruling voiding much of the law, the court emphasized that removing some Sunday voting was a discriminatory barrier. The court noted that even the state attorneys defending the law acknowledged that counties with Sunday voting in 2014's midterm elections were mostly black and Democratic.
Despite this, the court left the redrawing of each county's Sunday voting rules to the state's discretion. And Republicans seemed insistent on preventing a broad expansion of the practice, even as they added the number of hours overall. Early voting now covers 17 days, up from ten, per the court order.
By a 3-2 party line vote, the state board agreed to keep one Sunday of early voting in Hoke, Craven and Richmond counties, rejecting Democratic requests to restore the second Sunday offered in 2012.
"Those Sundays were very successful days for people voting in Craven County," argued Zeda Trice, her county's only Democratic board member. "The more time that voters have to exercise their constitutional right, the better it is for all of us."
Joshua Malcolm, one of two Democratic state board members, said the majority decision seemed to run counter to "what some very competent attorneys and lawyers have told us from the 4th Circuit."
But his Republican counterparts expressed sympathy with local officials who said they needed Sundays off during the taxing election season.
"The staff, the candidates and the volunteers for the candidates need a break," said Toni Reece, the Rockingham County board chairwoman. "There are people who enjoy their Sundays with their church and their families."
But a GOP state board member joined the board's two Democrats in approving nine additional sites in the first week in Wake County, which includes Raleigh and is home to more than 10 percent of the state's 6.7 million voters.
Republicans on the local Wake board had wanted only a single site during the first week of early voting in downtown Raleigh — a logistical nightmare counter to the 4th Circuit ruling, according to critics.
The Republican plan "is really an invitation for you all to go back to court and explain why this isn't a violation of the Voting Rights Act," elections lawyer Press Millen told the board. The state board also agreed to extend evening voting hours in coastal Wilmington's New Hanover County and add more early voting sites in rural Edgecombe County.
Democrats and civil rights activists have been suspicious since Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the state Republican Party, urged GOP activists in an email after the court ruling to pressure county Republicans to limit early voting hours, curtail Sunday voting and avoid sites on college campuses.
GOP leaders have countered that it's fair for Republicans to use rules to their advantage, and that Democrats need to stop whining and play the game. Still, the lawyers who sued to overturn the 2013 law said they were prepared to return to court if the state doesn't rewrite the most onerous plans.
James Baker, a Republican state board member, said he's not felt any pressure to act in a certain way.
"I'm sorry that it's turned into such a political issue," Baker said.