On May 18, 2011, House Bill 658 “Shorten Early Voting Period” passed with a 60-58 vote. The bill would shorten the current 2 ½ week early voting period by a week. Six Republicans voted against the measure. The Senate’s version of this bill, Senate Bill 657, goes further by eliminating Same Day Registration (SDR).
Before the introduction of one-stop voting (early voting in-person), the deadline to register to vote was 25 days prior to Election Day. This deadline was intended to give the county boards of election time to complete the administrative tasks required to maintain an accurate voter list with some integrity. The time was used to process last minute voter registrations and registration changes, and to mail out the legally required verification notices (voter cards) to ensure that registrants’ addresses were valid. The address verification process is a part of the list maintenance process that is required by law and, at one time, was used to verify the residence address of voters.
The advent of one-stop shortened the window for election boards to complete their work from 25 days to 6 days – making address verification an impossible task, especially in presidential election years when tens of thousands of voter registrations are submitted in the weeks leading up to the registration deadline. Eliminating the first week of early voting would give election boards more time to complete the legally required address verification process.
Add to this the implementation of SDR in 2008, and the election process becomes even more vulnerable due to inaccurate voter registration lists. SDR allows people to register and vote at the same time during the 2 ½ weeks of one-stop voting. SDR obstructs the address verification process not only for “Same-Day” registrants but also for voters who register during the last days before the voter registration deadline. This occurs because county boards are required by law to print and mail voter cards to all new registrants and then wait one month for any cards to be returned “undeliverable” if the addresses were not valid.
In 2008, the verification process was virtually ignored. As a result, thousands of voters who registered and voted had their registrations “denied” after their verification notices were returned as “undeliverable” because of invalid addresses. The notices were returned after their votes were counted and after the election was certified.
With HB 658 and SB 657, the legislature appears to be taking steps to restore order and return integrity to North Carolina’s election process.
The Director of the State Board of Elections is taking a different approach, however, as Gary Bartlett has been disingenuous (at best) in his remarks to the press. In response to supporters of HB 658, who argued there would be a cost savings (about $2,000 per site) for local elections boards by shortening the early voting period, Bartlett stressed that any savings would be offset by the possibility of having to add new precincts to compensate for the shortened one-stop period. What Mr. Bartlett did not mention in his comments cited in this article by Rob Morrow of the Charlotte Observer was that North Carolina’s county boards have continued to add precincts (thus polling places and equipment) even as one-stop voting has become more popular and less people voted in precincts on Election Day. Indeed, the first thing Mr. Bartlett should have shared with the press (and the legislature for that matter) was that even in 2008 when more than half of the voters voted at one-stop sites, the first week of one-stop was used on a very limited basis. Here is a schedule from 2008 for the Wake County One-Stop Sites. The schedule shows just how few actual opportunities to vote there were in the first week of one-stop voting.
How much time do we really need to vote in an election? If this law is enacted, the voting opportunity window will not change. A duly registered voter may request a ballot by mail beginning 60 days prior to Election Day. In addition, voters will be allowed to vote for 10 days during the one-stop voting period and finally for 13 hours on Election Day. Certainly, with opportunities such as these, it is hard to argue that voters will be disenfranchised by shortening the early voting period or the elimination of same-day registration.
There is a compelling case to be made, however, that taking these actions will ensure a more accurate roll of voter registrants and generate some much-needed cost savings in the election process.
Susan Myrick is an elections analyst at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh (nccivitas.org)