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Chatham County will have early voting availability on Sundays after all, but that decision — made at the state level last week, and affirmed by the Chatham County Board of Elections a day later — didn’t come without contention.
The local elections board’s meeting last Tuesday night, planned to finalize an early voting plan mandated by the state, devolved into what Democrat board member Mark Barroso called a “protest.”
When it was over, Chatham’s plan was set: two three-hour windows for early voting will be held on two Sundays, Oct. 18 and Oct. 25.
In North Carolina, county elections boards decide on early voting plans — and the decision must be unanimous — in accordance with state mandates and requirements. But back in July, Chatham’s board couldn’t come to a unanimous agreement about Sunday voting. That vote fell along partisan lines, with the board’s three Democrat members opting for Sunday voting and the two Republican members voting against.
As a result, the decision for Chatham — as well as 18 other counties which couldn’t come to an agreement about one-stop early voting plans — was tossed to the state board to be decided on Monday, Aug. 31. At that meeting, the state board sided with Chatham’s majority to implement Sunday early voting.
The only thing remaining was for the county’s board to codify the plan with a final vote, expected to be a formality at its meeting last Tuesday. At that meeting, board chairperson Laura Heise outlined that the board’s only requirement was to vote unanimously for the state mandated plan. That vote again fell along party lines.
Republican member Frank Dunphy then asked why the minority could not have additional discussion on the plan.
“That state board is not going to reconsider its decision,” Barroso said. “You’re going to make it harder for the staff to do their job. Let’s say you protest some more about the decision. It’s obvious the state board’s decision will stand. We all understand where you’re coming from.”
“Sounds to me like you are trying to hold up the elections in Chatham County,” Amy Meek, another Democrat on the board, said. “We have some of the highest turnout in the state and you’re saying you’re not going to vote for the plan. Let’s move away from partisanship to do what’s best for the county.”
Dunphy then argued that up until just before the meeting, he had no proof of the state board’s decision, despite the fact that the Chatham County Board of Elections Executive Director Pandora Paschal, Heise and fellow Republican member Charles Ramos attended the state meeting, which was held via a videoconferencing platform.
“Where’s our documentation that this plan was passed?” Dunphy questioned.
He then showed an email message he said he’d received less than an hour before the local board’s meeting from Katelyn Love, the general counsel for the state’s board of elections office, confirming the decision of the board. Dunphy argued receiving an email at the “11th hour” was a “very casual approach” to an approval of something as important as Sunday voting.
“Since I have sourced documentation and I’ve been allowed to say what I’ve been able to say, I’m going to vote yes,” Dunphy said. “Because I have a document now I’ll vote yes.”
Ramos continued to refuse to sign off on the early voting plan based on his opposition to Sunday voting because of religious convictions. The final vote was 4-1.
During the meeting, Barroso messaged Love via email, asking for clarification about the state board’s decision.
“The State Board adopted a plan for the county board,” Love wrote back. “Regardless of whether a board member agrees with that decision, the decision of the State Board controls. The county board should proceed with implementing the majority plan, as adopted by the State Board.”
The board’s next meeting is Sept. 18, at which Barroso has requested the board consider a statement in response to President Donald Trump’s recent comments suggesting voters who get absentee ballots also vote in person. The draft statement Barroso wants the board to consider states the board “objects to statements” made by Trump who “encourages Chatham County voters to commit voter fraud.” The statement continues by saying the county’s board, as other boards across the state, “vigorously defends” the integrity of the vote and has safeguards in place to ensure a voter can only vote once. It also notes that attempting to test the system would result in felony charges.
The statement also includes a reference to a statement by the state’s board of elections office enumerating the different processes elections offices have to maintain the integrity of its voting. This includes removing names from the poll books once an absentee ballot is received as well as multiple audits.
“The State Board has a dedicated investigations team that investigates allegations of double voting, which are referred to prosecutors when warranted,” Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director for the State Board, wrote.
Early voting will begin on Thursday, Oct. 15, and will run through Saturday, Oct. 31. The county’s six early voting sites will be open on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. On Saturdays (Oct. 17, 24 and 31), the sites will be open from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m.; Sunday hours (Oct. 18 and 25) are from noon until 3 p.m.
Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.