Decision on early voting locations held up by state legislation, city

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Anne Wilson addresses the Forsyth County Board of Elections. (photo by Jordan Green)

The Forsyth County Board of Elections is waiting for a final decision from the state General Assembly and permission from the city of Winston-Salem to use recreation centers before finalizing an early voting plan.

Locations and times for early voting in Forsyth County await a final decision on legislation that would require counties to keep all early-voting sites to be open at the same time.

The Forsyth County Board of Elections met on June 21 and then again on Tuesday to consider its options, but still has yet to take action. Following the state Senate’s ratification on June 15, the bill awaits Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature. If the governor vetoes the legislation, the Republican supermajority is likely to vote to override.

Traditionally, Forsyth County has opened one location at the Government Center at the start of early voting and then gradually expanded to additional sites around the county over the course of the 17-day period of early voting. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed SB 325, which requires counties to open all early-voting sites at the same time, on Monday. He wrote, “Previous attempts like this by the legislature to discriminate and manipulate the voting process have been struck down by the courts. True democracy should make it easier for people to vote, not harder.”

Forsyth County Elections Director Tim Tsujii said on Tuesday that the local board should expect the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly to override the veto.

When they met on June 21, the four members of the local board of elections contemplated the possibility that the pending state uniformity rule would reduce the overall number of early-voting sites, and narrowed down to two plans — one with 12 sites and another with eight — in anticipation of final action by the General Assembly.

Coverage for early voting, which is subject to a partisan tug-of-war between rural and urban interests, depends in large part on funding from the county. The county budget for FY 2018-2019 allocates $144,640 to pay part-time, early-voting poll workers. Tsujii told board members on Tuesday that County Manager Dudley Watts informed him on Monday that the county set aside $203,000 in the event of a second primary. Considering that a second primary was not needed this year, the funds are available to help pay for early voting during the general election. The total amount of money available for early voting is $347,921. Earlier, Tsujii had told the board that the plan with 12 sites would cost $307,020. A plan with 12 sites would expand on the 10 sites open during early voting in 2014, when Republicans controlled the board of elections and when the last midterm election took place.

Two plans submitted by board chair Susan Campbell, a Democrat, during the June 21 meeting include a location at Winston-Salem State University. The site, which serves students at the historically black university, was the object of strident debate in previous years, and Republican members eliminated the location when they controlled the board of elections.

In contrast to the last midterm in 2014, when Republicans controlled the board, the plans drafted by Campbell whittle down the number of sites outside Winston-Salem from four to three, retaining polling places in Clemmons, Lewisville and Kernersville, but dropping a location in Walkertown.

Comments by speakers who addressed the board during the June 21 meeting predictably reflected the county’s partisan rural-urban split.

Jim Norris, a Democrat who lives in Winston-Salem told board members: “There’s a lot of evidence that the places that are allowed for early voting and the times that are allowed for early voting are very biased against marginalized communities.

“Those same people really need to have precincts open for them to do early voting that are close to them,” he added. “Many of them do not have transportation. They have to go on bus routes. This is extremely important. We’re talking about democracy here.”

Beverly Lung, a conservative Republican in Walkertown, argued on June 21 that rural residents are at a disadvantage.

“When you’re out there in Tobaccoville and Rural Hall and Belews Creek and out in the outer areas where we still have citizens that have no buses and no public transportation… how do we get around town?” she asked. “We have to find a friend or a neighbor or whatever if you have car trouble or whatever. I also am old enough where Election Day was the only day we had to vote on, and we figured out how to get to the polls on Election Day.”

Lung returned on Tuesday and read a list of timed distances between the urban polling places, arguing that the plans floated by Campbell tilt in favor of Winston-Salem.

“I understand the close proximity in east Winston, but transportation is more of a challenge in that area,” Campbell responded.

Both of Campbell’s plans also drop Winston-Salem sites at Old Town Recreation Center and Sedge Garden Recreation Center. Questioned by Republican Vice-Chair Stuart Russell about the changes, Campbell said Polo Park Recreation Center or alternately Reynolda Manor Library could serve Wake Forest University students instead of Old Town. On Tuesday, Russell said he favors Old Town because it would provide access to people who live in the rural northwest corner of the county.

Campbell also said that turnout at the Sedge Garden Recreation Center in southeast Winston-Salem was low, suggesting the location wasn’t needed. Both of Campbell’s plans retain Mazie Woodruff Center, a popular location in northeast Winston-Salem, while adding St. Paul United Methodist Church on the east side of Winston-Salem and Southside Library. The more ambitious plan also includes polling places at Brown & Douglas Recreation Center, Miller Park Recreation Center and Sprague Street Recreation Center.

In addition to the uncertainty around the ultimate fate of SB 325, the local board still needs approval from the city of Winston-Salem to use recreation centers. The board voted unanimously on Tuesday to postpone a final decision on early-voting locations and times, but settled on a wish list of recreation centers to take to the city. The list includes Hanes Hosiery Community Center, at the request of Democratic member Robert Durrah Jr.

SB 325 also eliminates the final Saturday of early voting, and moves the 17-day period back from Thursday to Wednesday. The legislation mandates that early-voting sites are open each weekday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but gives the local boards the option of scheduling early voting on Saturdays and Sundays during the two middle weekends of the early voting period, which runs this year from Oct. 17 to Nov. 2. Anne Wilson, a Democratic activist, asked board members to take advantage of opening polling sites on Saturdays during the meeting on Tuesday.

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