Monday, June 24, 2024

Republican BOE member submits alternative early voting plan suggesting 8 over 17 days

One New Hanover County Board of Elections member is challenging the voting plan put forward and has turned in a minority plan for the state board to consider. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A board of elections member, absent from voting in April on the 2024 early voting plan, is petitioning the state board of elections for an alternative option leading up to Election Day.

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

Bruce Kemp is one of two Republicans against the 17 days voters have to cast ballots at the polls before Tuesday, Nov. 5. Kemp told Port City Daily he had to skip April 23’s meeting due to a medical issue but agreed with Republican member Tom Morris — the sole dissenting vote — that “17 days is too long.” 

He said he’s heard from more than a dozen members of both parties who have expressed similar concerns. The county’s voting plan has to have unanimous approval to go into effect, else the state board takes up the issue. 

“I just tried to share with Tom, who’s relatively new to the board, the issues, so that he could say as much as he could in April, but I knew he had the power to do what needed to be done — and that was to vote ‘no,’ and have an opportunity to let the state board say ‘no’ as well,” Kemp said.

Morris expressed to NHC Board of Elections director Rae Hunter-Havens and other board members in April there were multiple concerns, one regarding parity — or having the same amount of elections officials from each party working the polls.

“When you got that many days, we’re having a difficult time as it is staffing them,” Morris said at April’s meeting.

It’s one of the reasons submitted in Kemp’s alternative voting plan. He cites the plan’s eight days will include 13 half-day shifts instead of 29 half shifts over 17 days and gives below reasons to compel the state board: 

  • The additional 16 shifts over 9 additional days is an unnecessary burden and pressure on staff to schedule and re-schedule in the last days and provide support for election officials;
  • Our limited pool of election officials will be more exhausted before Election Day;
  • Compliance with 163-42(a) which requires appointment of an equal number of precinct assistants from different political parties (recognizing that Unaffiliated voters are not a political party) is substantially more difficult with 16 additional shifts over nine additional days;
  • Compliance with 163-166.35(a) requiring “every individual staffing any of those sites [Northeast Library HQ location] shall be a member or full-time employee of the county board of elections or an employee of the county board of elections whom the board has given training equivalent to that given a full-time employee” makes scheduling and staffing all locations over more days and shifts more difficult;
  • Significant cost reductions will be recognized but not proportionate as additional officials will likely be needed in some locations over the fewer days and shifts to properly serve early voters;
  • Voting locations are inconvenienced for nine fewer days;
  • Candidates, their early voting support teams and county party observers will also greatly appreciate the shorter coverage requirements.

Kemp sent his alternative plan, to start Oct. 26 instead of Oct. 17, to the North Carolina State Board of Elections in early May. To date, according to state BOE spokesperson Patrick Gannon, roughly 13 of 100 counties — including Brunswick — did not have unanimous votes from their board of elections. 

“In most elections, some counties are not unanimous,” Gannon said, noting it’s not an anomaly.

It’s not the first time Kemp has submitted a different option from what the majority of the county BOE has accepted; a few years ago he wanted to shave off voting locations. The state board — a 3-2 split in Democratic favor — did not agree. 

“I expect we will be shot down this time, too,” he said Tuesday.

Director Hunter-Havens said the 17 early voting days and mandatory hours have been the law of the land for years. Inked in state statute, it notes the county boards must conduct early voting no earlier than the third Thursday before Election Day and no later than 3 p.m. on the last Saturday before the election.

Kemp said he does a “plain reading” of the law and interprets the statute’s “no earlier” language as most important, in that it suggests early voting cannot open sooner than the third Saturday before Election Day, but it doesn’t state it must take place all 17 days. New Hanover County has been offering the most amount of days available under the law for years and no one has challenged it, he added.

“But my understanding is that the state board has the authority over locations and times, but the county board has discretion over the days, the number of days, and so I’m hoping state board will send it back to us at the county level and say, ‘It’s your duty to pick a number of days and that’s by majority vote,’ and that we can have a good discussion,” Kemp said.

The New Hanover County Board of Elections is made up of three Democrats and two Republicans. At the April 23 meeting, Hunter-Havens indicated there would be no problem staffing five early-voting locations for 17 days, despite Kemp writing it was an “unnecessary burden and pressure on staff.” As reported previously by PCD, roughly 10 to 13 officials will work the sites, with estimated costs for staffing to be $169,720 for 825 total operation hours. 

Hunter-Havens said Wednesday her projections were based on “knowledgeable and skilled bipartisan teams of election officials who are willing and able to serve voters during 17 days of voting.” According to the director, she has put into place a “robust” recruitment campaign, held every election year, to help increase available people.

“We will be conducting information sessions online for all new applicants throughout the summer,” she said.

Kemp acknowledged Hunter-Havens has administration covered, but said the real issue is hearing from personnel they are exhausted by the time Election Day rolls around. Kemp worked as an election official and chief in Fairfax County Virginia for 20 elections.  

“So I know what it’s like,” he said. “Candidates will say it’s too much when they’re trying to get people at the polls to say vote for me and the parties are the same way — they provide observers, they try to get more people to serve as election officials. Election officials have changes in their schedule that cause them to need to miss and the staff has to scramble to find people to cover. Sometimes we don’t have as many people available that can just jump in and go to a location to provide additional support, so lines get longer and voters get frustrated.”

Port City Daily reached out to both the Democratic and Republican chairs in New Hanover County for input. Nevin Carr of the GOP said a reduction would help in multiple ways, including monetarily.

“As taxpayers we foot the bill for each day of early voting,” he said. “Eight days of early voting would still provide a convenient window for people with busy schedules.” 

It also would help with staffing challenges, he added: “Most people prefer not to use a vacation day from their job to go work the polls.”

Kemp surmised Democrats had more-than double the amount of poll workers, which Jill Hopman, chair of NHC Democratic Party, said is not true. Hopman did not supply numbers upon request but said she serves on the bipartisan North Carolina Commission for the Future of Elections. 

“We just had a committee meeting for post-election challenges and litigation,” Hopman said. “Republicans get far more trainings and statewide support than we do. The NCDP is really working hard to level that playing field and rebuild our voter protection program.”

Port City Daily reached out to the commission for verification and data but did not receive info.

Kemp said he sent both Hopman and Carr his alternative plan to get everyone involved in the discussion and also wants to hear from the public. 

“I think a shorter period allows the numbers that we do have to be more effective and more efficient,” Kemp said.

Hopman was clear the Democratic Party “vehemently” opposed limitations on early voting.

“Anything related to poll workers or precinct assistants is nothing but a lazy excuse to make it harder to vote,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that their party is now so poorly organized they cannot cover polling sites. But that is an internal problem. Not one that the entire public and every voter should have to pay for.”

Stephanie Walker, a Democratic school board member now running for county commissioner, also was not onboard with the alternative suggestions.

“I do not agree with the statement that candidates and their support teams want less early voting days,” Walker said. “I believe early voting helps busy people pick a convenient time to exercise their right to vote. In my opinion, making a change to restrict voting only seems to benefit one political party.”

Port City Daily reached out to multiple candidates, including Republicans also running this election season, but no one else responded.

Statewide, early voting has brought in large numbers in the last decade or so — around 56% in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. It spiked above 60% in both the 2016 and 2020 general elections, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

Democrats have traditionally turned out more for early voting; however, in the primary 2024 election season, Republicans came out on top with 31.9% of the vote.

When posed with the idea that shortening days could be interpreted as an effort to curb voter participation, Kemp said he understood the perception.

“If it’s about getting to the polls to vote, sure, there are people who may have work or vacation plans, that if it was only early voting for 10 days or 12 days before Election Day, it might conflict with their personal schedule, but I believe that’s going to be a very small number of people, as far as changing the opportunity to vote,” he said. 

He also realized parties may lose campaigning time but added “reasonable people” would also see the hindrance in working that long.

“Once you vote, it’s public knowledge and candidates and parties can take you off their list of people that they need to get to the polls, and that’s legitimate, valuable campaigning,” he said. “And so that is the other side.”

Kemp said unless the state voters elected a Republican governor or changes were made to the state board, concerns by members on split boards may fall on deaf ears. He referred to Senate Bill 749 — frozen last year by a three-judge panel after Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, then overturned by the Republican supermajority. It would strip the governor of power to appoint state elections board members and allow lawmakers to do so.

It also would have an even number of representatives from both parties, whereas now the governor’s party is more favorable; however, a tie-breaking strategy isn’t presented in the bill.

“If the board has equal Republicans and Democrats, then we have to work together and compromise instead of one group just saying, ‘This is how we’re going to do it,’ even though there’s valid reasons to hear other concerns,” Kemp said. 

The state board is accepting public comments on New Hanover County’s alternative voting plan here through May 31, 5 p.m., and will take up the issue at its June 4 meeting.  

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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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