Elections Board split on Sunday early voting; state to consider on Aug. 31

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The N.C. Board of Elections will consider — and eventually rule — on early voting plans for Chatham and 18 other counties during a specially called meeting Aug. 31.

The announcement comes after Chatham’s Board of Elections split along party lines on the question of whether to include Sunday voting in its 2020 early voting plan. At a July 21 meeting, the five-member local body met to discuss early voting, polling sites and election day plans. Sunday voting was a topic because prior to the meeting, the board received emergency orders sent to each of the state’s 100 counties from the N.C. Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell stating that any early voting plan should have at least 10 hours of voting during the weekends of early voting, as well as encouraging early voting on Sundays throughout the early voting period.

The local elections board also heard about 40 comments from Chatham County residents during the meeting advocating for expanded early voting to include Sunday hours.

According to the draft minutes, Chatham elections board member Charles Ramos, a Republican, opposed having early voting sites open on Sundays “for religious reasons.” Frank Dunphy, another Republican member of the board, agreed with Ramos, advocating instead for longer Saturday hours in lieu of Sunday voting.

The board’s three Democrat members — Laura Heise, Amy Meek and Mark Barroso — each advocated in favor of Sunday voting. Heise noted data from 2016 which demonstrated that the number of voters “drops off” later in the afternoon on Saturdays during early voting.

In the end, the board could not find a plan that would garner a unanimous vote, something required by state law for all county election boards’ early voting plans. This means the plans under consideration by the county board will now be sent to the State Board of Elections to weigh in at its August 31 meeting.

Chatham County Board of Elections Executive Director Pandora Paschal said it’s not very common for the local board to split along partisan lines for its early voting plan. Paschal said that in the past, while the subject of Sunday voting was discussed, the board would often reach consensus on not having early voting on Sundays because “our voters show up” — Chatham County consistently ranks among the top five in the state for election turnout even without Sunday voting.

“Because of the pandemic, this is not a normal time,” Paschal said.

The board has been working on plans to “help keep people safe and give people options” in the face of what is expected to be a heavy turnout.” This is why, Paschal said, the board unanimously voted to approve two additional early voting sites for the 2020 election at the same meeting. Both of those sites — the Bold Building on Moring Drive and Chapel Hill and the New Hope Baptist Church on New Hope Church Road in Apex — are located in the northeastern portion of the county where there is the highest concentration of voters and where the population is growing the fastest. Those two sites join the county’s four early voting sites at the Goldston Town Hall, the Paul Braxton Gymnasium in Siler City, the Chatham County Agricultural and Conference Center in Pittsboro and the CCCC Health Science Center off U.S. Hwy. 15-501 in Pittsboro.

“People shouldn’t have to wait in lines for hours,” Pashcal said. “The board made the move to add two sites because in order to do proper social distancing you need more places to vote.”

The board also approved changes to 14 of the 18 polling locations in the precincts to accommodate social distancing and protecting the safety of voters. Voting for residents in five precincts — Albright, Bynum, Hadley, Harpers Crossroads and Oakland — will be moved to buildings actually outside of their precincts since no structure that can maintain “proper social distancing” is available inside the precincts.

Nine other precincts will be in different buildings, but will remain inside the precinct proper. Four precincts — New Hope, West Siler City, East Williams and West Williams — will remain unchanged. The exact locations were not listed the minutes since the plan is still awaiting the final approvals from the state.

Other than the debate over weekend hours, the local elections board has nearly all of its plans in place for early voting and election day. Following the state’s ruling on weekend hours on Aug. 31, the Chatham County Board of Elections will begin the process of “educating the voters” of the changes to ensure “voters know all their options.”

Early voting runs from Thursday, Oct. 15 to Saturday, Oct. 31. Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.

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