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Colin Campbell: Expand early voting — but don’t cut the busiest day

By Colin Campbell

RALEIGH — Would you rather vote at 7:30 a.m. or 6:30 p.m. on a weekday — or vote on the Saturday morning before the election?

That was the practical effect of the choice facing the legislature last week — but you might not know it from the heated rhetoric on both sides.

Democrats and left-leaning groups called it a voter suppression bill aimed at disenfranchising African-Americans.

Republicans argued it would expand and standardize early voting schedules, making it easier to vote. But the late-night introduction of the bill, rushed process, and failure to get input from state elections officials made the proposal look suspicious.

Senate Bill 325 would cut one of the busiest days of early voting — the Saturday before the election — while requiring that all weekday voting locations be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett and the sponsor of the bill, argued that the pre-election Saturday strains elections officials who sometimes make mistakes because of rushed prep work between early voting and Election Day.

Democrats, in turn, say the 7-to-7 schedule mandate would strain election boards and their budgets and could result in fewer extra voting sites spread through a county.

But I think those extra weekday hours are a positive move. Some small, rural counties currently have a single early-voting site open only during business hours. If you work during business hours, voting between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. might never be a viable option.

Expanding to a standard 12-hour schedule means most people would be able to vote on their way to or from work. And it would reduce the voter confusion created by patchwork schedules where different locations are open different days at different times. The schedule could more easily fit on campaign materials, possibly increasing early voting turnout.

I just wish the improvement in weekday voting didn’t come at the expense of the final Saturday, when 200,000 people came out to vote in 2016, a large percentage of them African-American. An amendment to restore voting on that Saturday from Rep. Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland, was shot down in a party-line vote.

That raises the question: Are Republicans seeking to eliminate the final Saturday because that’s when a lot of Democrats vote, or are they just addressing workload concerns from election officials?

That’s why it would have been nice to hear from those elections officials before the bill passed. But they were just as surprised as the public when the bill was unveiled on Twitter at 1 a.m., just hours before a committee hearing and vote.

The bipartisan state elections board sent a letter to lawmakers asking that the agency be consulted at least 24 hours before election-related bills are filed. Lewis responded by suggesting that the board’s chairman (a Democrat appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper) is simply a “trial lawyer” with no experience in elections administration.

Lewis apparently doesn’t like the bipartisan elections board he helped create — which does a better job than the old board structure of balancing power between the two major political parties. He thinks he understands elections better than the elections agency’s top professional staffers, who include the wife of a prominent GOP attorney and a former staffer in the George W. Bush White House.

The rushed process and lack of input is likely the result of inevitable lawsuits over the early voting changes. Courts have already ruled that a previous GOP effort to eliminate Sunday voting would target African-Americans “with surgical precision.” Passing a bill without considering African-American voting trends might help lawmakers plead ignorance in court if needed.

It’s a shame that the good ideas to improve early voting in SB 325 will be overshadowed by the cut to Saturday voting. But that’s what happens when you treat the legislative process like a NASCAR race and don’t bother to take a few pit stops to see what people think.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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