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Thursday, May 23, 2024

NHC Board of Elections members vote on additional early-voting spot on Pleasure Island

As a new board, the NHC BOE discussed “one-stop” or early voting sites as the first piece of business voted on. Unanimously, they agreed to add a site to Pleasure Island. (Port City Daily/Shawn Singleton)

WILMINGTON – Voters in Carolina and Kure beaches won’t have to drive as far to cast their ballots early this fall.

READ MORE: State BOE tweaks rules for voter ID law after public input

On Tuesday the newly minted New Hanover Board of Elections hammered out some details for the upcoming municipal elections. 

Prior to the meeting, Superior Court Judge James Faison swore in the BOE’s new chairman, Derrick Miller, who was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper on June 29. Also installed were members Bruce Kemp, James Battle Morgan Jr. and Tom Morris to two-year terms on the board. 

Miller replaces Oliver Carter, who previously served as chairman of the board. Morgan was later voted in by board members to replace Miller, who formerly served as secretary.

A fifth member, Natalie Hinton-Stelling, was not present at the meeting but will be sworn in come August. 

As a new board, “one-stop” or early voting sites was the first piece of business discussed and voted on. Unanimously, they agreed to add a site to Pleasure Island.

In the past, the county has had three early voting places for people to register and cast a ballot in one stop — regardless of precinct — for a certain number of days ahead of Election Day, which is Tuesday, Nov. 7. Early sites in the past have been located in downtown Wilmington at Cape Fear Community College, the New Hanover County Senior Resource Center on College Road and the BOE main office inside the Northeast Regional Library on Military Cutoff Road.

However, board members considered adding either a fourth location at Carolina Beach Town Hall altogether or to replace one of the other spots to accommodate voters in the southern island communities of the county.

Election Director Rae Hunter-Havens said because the Carolina Beach Recreation Center, currently used on Election Day, is a large building, it hasn’t precipitated a need for an early voting center on the island. The BOE just sends the town five check-in laptops, up to 15 election officials and as many as 25 voting booths.

There are also a great number of contested municipal elections in Carolina Beach, she added, noting historically high voter turnout for mayor and town council on Election Day. 

“To give you some perspective, in the 2021 municipal elections, they voted 1,700 people in the gym without really any incident, and without any long waiting times on Election Day because they’ve always done it,” Hunter-Havens said.  

Miller pointed out the steady increase in voter turnout in the last three municipal elections as a reason to add another location instead of replacing one. According to the BOE, in 2017 turnout was at 15% but increased to 19% in 2019, then again to 24% in 2021.

“The upward trajectory of voter turnout and increasing turnout of voters in New Hanover County is a strong argument for not scaling back numbers of sites,” he said.

Hunter-Havens told the board there are benefits to opening a new early voting location and potentially replacing the College Road senior center location with one in Carolina Beach.

“I think having a site at the senior center would provide opportunities for people in many different precincts to vote,” she said. “Oftentimes, if you don’t live on the island, you might not be as familiar with a municipal ‘one-stop’ site at Carolina Beach Town Hall, but I do know some folks who wouldn’t want to come to the senior center during even-numbered elections who would use the ‘one-stop’ site at Carolina Beach because it would be less crowded.”

According to the BOE, 4,173 people cast ballots during early voting in the 2021 municipal elections at the senior resource center. It was not used as a “one-stop” center in 2019.

“Some of the folks on Carolina Beach and Kure Beach spend as much as an hour driving to the Senior Resource Center in order to vote, whereas other people have a considerably shorter period of time because the other locations are in the Wilmington metropolitan area,” Kemp said at the meeting. “I was trying to think of ways to be supportive of them, although I would hate to see us incur additional costs.”

For this year, each location would cost approximately $20,000 to staff for 15 days, a base number of 10 election officials, and a fourth site would be an additional $20,000, Hunter-Havens told Port City Daily.

Kemp proposed adding the fourth early voting location at Carolina Beach Town Hall and cutting “one-stop” hours at the other three voting locations to eight days to save money and make them easier to staff.

The board agreed to reduce staff to eight to 10 election officials at each location. Hunter-Havens told PCD Wednesday the BOE office at the New Hanover County Library costs about $20,000 to staff during early voting. It will be $31,000 to $35,000 to run three additional early voting sites, making the four-location total between $51,000 to $55,000.

Kemp told board members it was unfair that the people of the county’s island communities had limited choices to vote early in their own municipal elections.

Earlier in the meeting, new board secretary Morgan Jr. suggested the Cape Fear Community College location in downtown Wilmington to possibly close in order to make room for a Pleasure Island early voting stop. However, he was open to the idea of having four early voting spots. 

Miller said he would not support any plan that removes the downtown Wilmington location to create another.

“It is a densely populated area within New Hanover County. There are a great deal of walkable neighborhoods in that part of the county,” Miller said. “There are also nodes of public transportation.”

From her experience, Hunter-Havens said voters tend to show up the most on Election Day in municipal and primary elections — the latter slated locally for March 5, 2024 — so she was not in support of a fourth “one-stop.” However, she did favor replacing the senior center location for one in Carolina Beach.

“One thing we did see with having the senior resource site as a ‘one-stop’ voting center was that it did confuse a great number of voters, especially in the Monkey Junction area,” Hunter-Havens said. “They don’t live in the municipal boundaries of Wilmington, but they still have a Wilmington address.” 

Under state board of elections rules, the New Hanover BOE had to agree unanimously on any changes to locations or county election rules. If the county board could not agree during the meeting, it would have to send suggestions to the state board to then make those decisions.

Kemp made a motion, seconded by Morris, to create a fourth “one-stop” location in Carolina Beach to run from Oct. 28 to Nov. 4, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and noon to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, except for Nov. 4, where by state statute, will run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

This schedule will also extend to the downtown Wilmington and Senior Resource Center “one-stop” sites.

The passed motion leaves the main BOE office’s scheduled early voting hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., starting on Oct. 19. The location will be closed Oct. 21 and 22, but will reopen Oct. 23 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Oct. 27.

The office will be open on weekends from noon to 5 p.m., Oct. 28 and 29, then resume weekday hours through Nov. 3, before ending with the state-sanctioned 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. hours on Nov. 4.

“By having one full weekend, one Saturday and one Sunday and another Saturday, we accommodate those who work Monday through Friday who can’t get off who want to vote early in person,” Kemp said.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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