by Eric Ginsburg and Jesse Morales
The overflow crowd at the old Guilford County Courthouse didn’t hear the results of the county elections board’s decision until after the meeting technically adjourned — uproar in the hall that normally houses county commission meetings made it impossible to hear what the huddled board was discussing.
The emergency meeting Monday — called to discuss the county’s early voting plan in light of a Fourth Circuit Court decision striking down North Carolina’s restrictive voting law — drew massive crowds concerned that the board would reduce the number of early voting sites and seek to limit turnout among students and people of color in particular. Dozens protested outside of the building prior to the meeting, and at one point the entire room stood to chant in opposition to a regressive proposal.
What started with the Rev. Julie Peeples, the Rev. Anthony Spearman and Rabbi Fred Guttman standing and interrupting the meeting turned into the overflow crowd chanting, “Stop suppressing the vote” followed by “Let the public speak.”
The three board members — Republicans Kathryn Lindley and Don Wendelken along with Democrat Jim Kimel— huddled with county elections staff and continued discussing proposals to comply with the new early voting requirements. As voting rights activists, clergy, members of the NAACP and League of Women Voters and countless others continued calling for public comment, expanded hours and additional polling sites, the board unanimously passed a resolution and adjourned the meeting.
It wasn’t until the room quieted down, in part thanks to the urging of the Rev. Nelson Johnson, that Republican Chair Kathryn Lindley informed attendees of the board’s decision.
The board expanded early voting days from 10 — as previously mandated by the state — to 17, the new requirement after the Fourth Circuit returned the standards to 2012 levels. For a portion of that time, early voting sites will be open at UNCG, NC A&T University and more than 20 other sites, Lindley said, adding that it will include one day of Sunday voting.
The board’s decision drew applause from the audience, assuaging the fears many present felt that the Republican-controlled board would drastically reduce the number of voting sites, especially in left-leaning minority areas of town, or eliminate Sunday early voting. And the decision “really doesn’t deviate” from what Democratic board member and former Guilford County District Attorney Jim Kimel was pushing for, he said after the meeting.
But the new early voting plan isn’t exactly a progressive victory either, as much as it is a compromise or improvement from a proposal raised by Lindley and discussed at a previous elections board meeting.
A letter from the state outlined the local board’s options — expand the previous 10-day plan to 17 days, which would include 25 sites; keep existing hours in place and open the county elections board office for the additional seven days; or come up with a new schedule entirely.
Prior to Monday’s emergency meeting, the board appeared to be headed towards the third option, scrapping its original plan for 10 days of early voting at 25 sites and including early voting and on-campus locations. There had only been discussion of doing so, Republican board member Don Wendelken stressed in an interview following the meeting, saying that the board never voted on a 12-site, 17-day plan.
“When you have discussion, you work it out and you find the best resolution,” he said.
Wendelken drew boos from the audience early in the meeting as he argued that the state’s old 10-day limitation wasn’t so bad because it maintained the total number of hours. And shortly after he outlined a proposal to take the middle option provided by the state, the audience erupted in opposition.
But it is Wendelken’s moderate compromise that ultimately passed, adding seven days of early voting at the county board’s office but otherwise leaving the early voting schedule the same, according to Elections Director Charlie Collicutt.
Linda Sutton, a field organizer with advocacy group Democracy NC, told TCB after the meeting that she was “partially satisfied” with the results.
“They chose to limit hours, and locations during the first week,” Sutton said. “That will put a burden on this office and restrict voting by the more than half of African-American voters who vote early.”
A&T instructor Derick Smith, who’s been active in the statewide battle for voting rights, said in an interview that “most of the public thinks they got what they wanted — more locations and more time,” while he sees the decision as loss for African Americans because it “limits young African-American voters, like the students at A&T, from having the early voting access they need.”
While the early voting sites at A&T and UNCG were maintained, the fact that there will only be one early voting site open for the additional seven days means that the board’s decision is more of a compromise than a progressive win.
Wendelken doesn’t see it as a compromise, stating in an interview that the crowd gathered Monday didn’t affect him.
“I’m fixed in,” he said. “I’m fair. I’m just doing what the law requires.”
The decision not to allow public comment at the meeting despite repeated calls from the audience frustrated Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp, a Democrat who attended the meeting. But he said in an interview that, “the board stepped up” by deciding not to reduce early voting sites on campuses as it had discussed.
But Catherine Magid, a member of the League of Women Voters, said she was “very dissatisfied and discouraged” with the outcome of the meeting because she wanted to see greater access than the board provided, particularly for students.
“We registered 3,200 high school and college students, with 1,500 registrations at UNCG alone,” Magid said. “Voting is a right, not a privilege.”