Tuesday, July 23, 2024

‘17 days is a long time’: Republican BOE member concerned with early-voting plan

New Hanover County Board of Elections voted on a preliminary early voting plan but because it didn’t receive unanimity, it will have to be voted on by the State Board of Elections.

WILMINGTON — The New Hanover County Board of Elections met last week to hash out its early voting plan for the 2024 general election. 

It included assessing venues, hours and days open for the voting public during the statewide early-voting period, ahead of Election Day — scheduled for Nov. 5, 2024.

Board of elections director Rae Hunter-Havens put forth to board members a proposal to open five locations in New Hanover County for 17 days during the early-voting period for a total of 165 hours at each site. This has been the norm in previous years except for the 2020 election when nine sites were chosen due to social-distancing measures; at the time the state board reduced both the number of voting booths and the number of voters allowed at any one site simultaneously. 

Not every board member was taken by the 2024 voting plan suggestion. 

“Well, you know our issue is, we’re trying to get up to where we have parity — as far as the people working the polls and when you got that many days, we’re having a difficult time as it is staffing them,” board member Tom Morris said, referring to the Republican Party.

“Parity is not a requirement,” Hunter-Havens responded. 

“It’s not a requirement, but it’s also stated in the law that it should be,” Morris added. 

Hunter-Havens put the onus on the GOP to invest more time to supply potential poll workers to be appointed by the board. Board of elections members appoint precinct officials; North Carolina law allows the political party to make recommendations to the county board. However, if those people are not qualified, or if the parties do not submit a list, the county board may appoint its own officials.

Port City Daily asked the BOE director the makeup of poll workers, per party affiliation, but did not hear back by press. 

“My job is to say, ‘OK, we want to have our people present. We want them working. We want them to be functional,’” Morris said. “And we want to make sure there’s enough days that everybody gets to vote, but if we can keep that and knock a couple of days off, it makes it a whole lot easier to accomplish.”

“But that’s not a burden that’s passed along to the voter, to limit either the number of sites or the hours in which they can vote,” Hunter-Havens added.

Morris clapped back that the workers are made up of voters and repeated 17 days “seemed like a long period of time.”

“It’s been the early voting period for years now,” Hunter-Havens said. 

Around 10 to 13 officials will work five sites, with estimated costs for staffing to be $169,720 for 825 total operation hours. Hunter-Havens proposed voting open Thursday Oct. 17, and close Saturday, Nov. 2. Hours would be Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., except for Saturday, Nov. 3, which state statute requires operations to be 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The sites include:

  • Northeast Regional Library
  • Board of elections building, now under construction at the government center
  • Senior Resource Center on South College Road
  • Downtown’s CFCC Health Sciences Building
  • Carolina Beach Town Hall

The north campus of CFCC has been dropped, as it had less voter turnout. Hunter-Havens said, historically, the government center welcomed the largest number of voters, followed by the senior center, but that shifted in the 2018 and 2020 elections. The Northeast Library, where the BOE offices are, gained traction. Even upon having a long wait time, she said staff found voters would rather wait there, at a location of familiarity, than travel farther to a different polling location, such as the north CFCC campus.

“The inclusion of the future Board of Elections building in the plan provides voters who live or work in the central or northern part of the county with ample and equitable access to cast their ballots,” Hunter-Havens explained to PCD.

All other locations, she noted to the board of elections members, are centrally located in the county, near roads frequently traveled.

Presidential years normally bring out more voters, so having access to centrally located polls were top of mind. In 2020, early voting in New Hanover County brought in more than 87,000 voters, with absentee ballots making up just a little more than 27,500.

Hunter-Havens added elections in 2024 are “very different” than in 2020 — an election notoriously challenged by former President Donald Trump, culminating in the January 2021 insurrection. Hunter-Havens predicted this year, too, would be “emotionally charged,” as Trump rematches Biden. Reverberations of election fraud, she worried, could carry over at polls.

“We are concerned not only by observers, but by electioneers and by voters who, depending upon their perspective, believe that the elections officials do something wrong, that they’ve done something wrong in the past because maybe an election did not turn out the way they’d hoped. That’s the climate we’re working in to train election officials.”

Hunter-Havens also combated Morris’ concerns of parity, stating individuals who work the polls are doing so in a nonpartisan capacity. 

“They are not your people or the Democrats’ people,” she said.

“Seventeen days early voting is just a long time,” Morris repeated. “That’s a lot of days to have people working.” 

Chairman Derrick R. Miller thought knocking early voting days off due to less Republican Party poll workers divided the board’s priorities. Miller asked the BOE director if the board of elections faced staffing problems. Hunter-Havens confirmed that anything more than five sites may tighten resources on a “limited pool of experienced election officials,” but the administrative office has capacity to meet statutory requirements. 

Board member Natalie Hinton-Stalling reminded her fellow members their primary function is to serve voters and 17 days is favorable to allow access to the polls.

“We’re not trying to limit people,” she said. “We want to encourage people to vote so I’m in favor of that.”

Secretary Jim Morgan agreed that the board should follow the plan laid out by BOE staff, also concurred by Miller. 

“I guess my lodestar would be ensuring maximum valid access to the maximum number of people that’s possible within the confines of the law,” Miller said. “If they can staff this plan and support this plan and they believe it will serve our voters, I, too, am in support.”

Morris brought up an alternative plan being put forth. Board members not in agreement can petition the state board to consider a minority proposal.

“Each board member who supports that minority plan can submit their materials to me and I’ll send it to the state board,” Hunter-Havens said. 

Bruce Kemp was not part of the meeting, but since the 3-1 vote in favor of the plan didn’t receive required unanimity it will move to the five-member state board.

“We have been advised that the chair of the state board plans to call a meeting to consider early voting plans the week of May 20th,” Hunter-Havens told Port City Daily.

PCD reached out to Kemp and Morris to see if they would send in a different plan for consideration. A response was not received by press.


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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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