The absentee, one-stop voting plan chosen for November’s general election by New Hanover County’s Board of Elections on Thursday drew strong reaction from members of the community.
Though it’s exactly the same plan the county had for the 2012 general election, there are changes from the one used during the March primary, namely that Sunday voting has been eliminated and the hours are shorter.
The plan set hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Saturday, from Oct. 20 to Nov. 4. On Nov. 5, the Saturday before the election, hours will be 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The early voting period, however, has been extended as compared to the Presidential Primary. It is now 17 days, compared to the 10 days of early voting during the primary. That is the result of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals striking down a North Carolina law that had reduced early voting and same-day registration and had required voter identification. The law, enacted in 2013, was deemed racially discriminatory by a three-judge panel, which found the law had disproportionately hurt the ability for African Americans and other minorities to vote.
Prior to the board’s decision, a lengthy public comment session saw about 40 citizens stand in front of the three-member board to talk about which of the six plans under consideration were best. The majority of speakers were lobbying for extended hours on weekdays and voting on Sunday and were left disappointed by the board’s decision
“The problem with the 2012 plan is that it’s banking hours,” said Richard Poole, chairman of the New Hanover County Democratic Party. Poole said some people cannot leave their jobs early to get to a poll before 5 p.m. “This is not a good plan for people that work full time.”
Poole and others like Nelson Beaulieu said that people should not have to choose between exercising their right to vote or paying their bills.
“Voting is a fundamental principle of our democracy,” said Beaulieu, a United States Army veteran and professor at Cape Fear Community College who is one of three Democrats running for the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners in November. “If it comes down to needing to feed your family or pay your rent versus going to vote, what do you think they’re going to choose? Nobody should ever have to make those decisions.”
Another veteran, former New Hanover County School Board member Nick Rhodes, was one of several Vietnam War veterans to speak in front of the election board.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I ever thought that I’d have to fight for the right to vote in my own country,” Rhodes said to the board after describing his experiences following his time in combat.
After the meeting, Rhodes, who served as a school board member from 2006 to 2010, said the election board made “a huge mistake” by eliminating Sunday voting.
“If you look at the numbers, the greatest percentage of people voting during the first week of early voting and on Sundays are African American,” said Rhodes, who is black. “This whole thing is about suppressing the minority vote, and they know it. They can say it’s about money, but it’s really about voter suppression.”
Deborah Dicks Maxwell, president of the New Hanover County NAACP, was also unhappy with the decision. In March, her group helped organize “Souls to the Polls,” during which churches brought buses and vans full of people to the New Hanover County Government Center to vote after services.
“For some people, Sunday is the only time they can go vote. They’re busy working or doing other things during the week, or they don’t have transportation,” Dicks Maxwell said. “But we will still do a moral march to the polls and get as many people as we can within the constraints that we’ve been given.”
New Hanover County resident Peter Divoky was in the minority Thursday when he spoke in favor of fewer early voting hours, citing concerns about costs. He said the country had just one day to vote for hundreds of years and people still made it to the polls.
“We Americans are a resourceful lot,” Divoky said to the board after asking them to be responsible with citizens’ tax dollars. “We’ll figure out how to cast our vote.”
Following the meeting, Divoky called the board’s decision “a reasonable compromise.”
“We do need some early voting, as it does help ease long lines (on Election Day),” Divoky said. “But the cost is still a concern to me … we’ve always been able to get it done in one day, so it’s possible.”
When asked if he would help drive people without transportation to the polls on Election Day, Divoky immediately answered, “Absolutely.”
Dicks Maxwell, who helps organize rides on Election Day through the NAACP, is hoping people will indeed be willing to drive people during the weekdays to vote within the set times.
“We’re going to make lemonade out of these lemons,” Dicks Maxwell said.