State Board of Elections will determine county’s voting plans after Rowan board fails to reach consensus

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, August 18, 2021

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — After failure of the county board to unanimously agree on an early voting plan for municipal elections, the state Board of Elections will select Rowan County’s plan at its September meeting.

The Rowan County Board of Elections met Tuesday to discuss four possible plans for early, one-stop voting, which begins Oct. 14 and lasts until Oct. 30. The state requires a minimum number of days throughout the early voting period, but county boards are allowed to choose their own plan and hours as long as it’s a unanimous vote.

The state board had to select Rowan County’s early voting plans for the general election in 2020 as well, which resulted in three Saturdays and two Sundays of early voting.

Of the four voting plans, only three were voted on at Tuesday’s meeting. All plans include voting Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. beginning Oct. 14 and ending Oct. 30. Plan A allows for early voting on one Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Plan B includes two Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and one Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Plan C includes two Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., but no Sundays. Finally, Plan D allows early voting from Oct. 14-31, including three Saturdays and two Sundays.

Nearly a dozen county residents spoke during the public comment period to express support for a voting plan that maximizes the eligible hours and days to cast a vote, including Sundays. The issue of voting on Sundays was a discussion among board members and the general public before the primary election in March 2020. The pandemic prompted North Carolina Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell in July 2020 to open a minimum number of early, in-person voting sites with weekends to strengthen ballot access for the general election.

Carol Pomeroy said the board shouldn’t make the opportunity to vote harder for those who aren’t able to vote during the week due to job commitments, transportation barriers and child care arrangements, for example.

Mary Walker said she was in favor of Plan D, or what she called “The People’s Plan.”

Keith Townsend, a Democrat who was unsuccessful in unseating Rep. Julia Howard in the 2020 election to represent District 77, spoke about the history of voter suppression, the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the ongoing attempts today, he said, to limit access and participation in the voting process.

“Any time you expand access to voting, you’re strengthening our democracy,” Townsend said.

Michael Stringer said the costs to expand early voting shouldn’t be a factor. He recalls voting with his parents during the 1960s, and said there is a need for more people to vote “because we need people to believe in our system of government.”

“It’s our most sacred right,” he added.

Linda Voelker said she knows someone who can’t vote during the week because of 12-hour work shifts and caring for elderly parents through the week.

Bob Young, however, said he was opposed to weekend voting as it increases the costs unnecessarily. He added that voters have sufficient opportunity if they plan to do so and finds weekend voting unnecessary for this election.

Board members voted on each plan individually. Dave Collins voted in support of plans A and C, while LouTricia Cain voted in support of Plan C. Both voted against Plan D, while board members George W. Benson and Catreila Hunter voted in support of Plan D.

Collins said voters have plenty of opportunity to vote, especially with the option to cast an absentee by mail ballot. But Sunday voting requires more money and more staff for additional days he doesn’t find necessary.

“For years and years, our country has gotten along perfectly well with the weekday and Saturday voting,” he said.

Cain said she believes Sunday should be a day for God, adding that she and her husband, who both run Ark Plumbing Inc. in China Grove, grant their employees time to vote during the week if they need it.

“If it is as important as you say it is, then you will make time to do so,” Cain said.

In speaking about her support for Sunday voting, Hunter said the board received “quite a bit of input” about the need and desire to expand voting and to have options for weekend voting.

Benson said while turnout for municipal elections is never as high as the presidential elections, the nation is still in a pandemic and the board has a responsibility to conduct free and fair elections. He cited the early voting turnout totals for weekdays and weekends last year, which shows more than 2,600 voters cast a ballot on the two Sundays of early voting in the 2020 general election. Benson added that more than 1,300 of those votes were cast at the Rowan Public Library’s south branch in Landis and the Rockwell American Legion site, which shows the turnout wasn’t only due to the “Souls to the Polls” events held at West End Plaza last year.

“These figures show Sunday voting was well-received and utilized in all areas of the county, Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated equally,” Benson said.

Rowan County experienced the highest voter turnout on record following the 2020 general election when nearly 76% of the 97,443 registered voters cast a vote. By contrast, in 2016, 67% of the 95,197 registered voters cast a vote. By the end of early voting last year, nearly 50% of Rowan County voters had cast a vote at one of the five sites.

“Democracy has no price tag,” Benson added.

No votes were cast for Plan B, which Board of Elections Director Brenda McCubbins called “a compromise” regarding the issue of weekend voting. She said that plan accommodates anyone who needs to vote on any particular day while also keeping costs in mind. Both Benson and Hunter said they were willing to support the plan, but Collins and Cain reiterated they were not in support of voting on Sundays.

McCubbins will submit the three plans that were voted on Tuesday to the state Board of Elections, which will meet Sept. 10 to decide which voting plan Rowan County will use. Board chair John Hudson asked Benson to speak about his support for Sunday voting, while Collins will speak about his opposition to Sunday voting to state board members.

The Rowan County Board of Elections will meet on Sept. 7 at 12:30 p.m. at the West End Plaza.

In other business at the meeting:

• Board members approved the placement of two referendums on the municipal election ballot for the town of Spencer. At the town’s meeting last week, aldermen approved two separate measures to increase the term for mayor and board members to four years with staggered terms. Currently, the mayor and board serve two years and all come up for election at the same time. The change would not go into effect until 2023.

• Board members approved a resolution to temporarily transfer voters at four precincts to adjacent sites for the upcoming municipal election, which McCubbins explained is an action taken because of the historically low number of voters in those particular precincts.

Those who vote at the Franklin site at Shoaf’s Wagon Wheel (precinct 11) will instead vote at Isenberg Elementary School (precinct 41). Voters at Union Fire Department (precinct 15) will vote at Park Avenue Community Center (precinct 38). Those at North Locke (precinct 21) will vote at Maupin Avenue Presbyterian Church (precinct 34). Voters at Ellis Park (precinct 45) will vote at Knox Middle School (precinct 39).

• McCubbins shared with board members the number of ballots that will be ordered for each municipality’s election. The board will order enough ballots to accommodate 90% of the eligible voters in Salisbury, which McCubbins said is based on the expectation of a larger turnout since it’s the first year the mayor and council races are separate in Salisbury. The towns of Cleveland and Landis will have enough ballots for 60% of its total eligible voters, while 75% of ballots will be ordered for all other municipalities. McCubbins told the Post the percentage is calculated by the anticipated turnout, how competitive the races are and whether there are additional items on the ballots.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.