- Many county election boards can accommodate early voters with fewer hours, thus saving money
- One member of the State Board of Elections, however, is preventing counties from reducing their number of early voting hours
- A provision in VIVA allows one member to deny county requests for reductions
Joshua Malcolm, one of two Democrats on the five-member State Board of Elections (SBE), has told the board’s Executive Director he will not allow counties to reduce the number of one-stop hours (early voting hours) for the November election.
Sounds funny, doesn’t it? How can one state board member make the decision for a five-member board, a board appointed by the governor? This decision by one man will have far-reaching effects in all of North Carolina’s 100 counties.
In a Numbered Memo 2016-07, dated March 29 and sent to all 100 counties’ elections directors, Kim Strach explained that one unnamed board member would not vote in favor of any hours reductions requests and that “lack of budget of resources would not be considered a valid reason to allow a reduction.”
One State Board member has indicated that the member will not vote in favor of any hours reduction requests for the 2016 general election, with only the very limited exception of exigent circumstances. This member also made clear that a lack of budget of resources would not be considered a valid reason to allow a reduction. Thus, all county boards are on notice not to expect hours reductions to be granted for the November election unless unforeseen circumstances arise. All county boards should take steps now to secure the resources they need to meet this statutory mandate. The topic of securing resources for the 2016 general election is explored further in Numbered Memo 2016-06.
The memo did not include the board member’s name. It took an email to the state board’s spokesperson to find out that the board member making the unilateral decision was Joshua Malcolm. Malcom is the former chairman of the Robeson County Board of Elections and is one of two Democrats appointed by the governor to the five-member state board. Here is the text message that precipitated the phone conversation.
Malcolm is allowed to make this power move because of a compromise to the provision in VIVA (the Voter Identification Verification Act/HB 589 passed in 2013) that shortened the early voting period from 17 days to 10 days. In the last hours of wrangling over the changes to the election law in 2013, legislators voted to require counties to offer the same number of cumulative hours of one-stop voting that were offered for the previous comparable election, even while shortening the early voting period by 10 days. This compromise provided for county boards in primaries and elections to request that the State Board allow for fewer hours under G.S. 163-227.2(g3). But there was a catch with this allowance – the request had to be approved with a unanimous county board of elections vote, followed by a unanimous vote by the five State Board of Elections members.
The move by Malcolm is not unprecedented. In 2014 the other Democrat on the SBE did essentially the same thing. Maja Kricker, former chairman of the Chatham County Board of Elections, devised a set of rules that counties seeking to reduce their early voting hours had to comply with in order for her to vote in favor of their plans. Since the vote had to be unanimous, her “no” vote would ultimately deny any county requesting a variance.
If you attended the meetings back in 2014 when Kricker was questioning the counties on their variance requests, you might be inclined to thank Mr. Malcolm for saving us from having to sit through those particularly painful meetings again. But Mr. Malcolm’s decision to run roughshod over the SBE can’t be what the state legislators had in mind when they agreed to a requirement of unanimous votes from, first, the county boards and then the SBE.
Local boards, in general, ask for a reduction of hours when they have determined that the total number of hours required would exceed the number that was needed to accommodate voters. For example, in 2014, one county, in its request for a reduction of hours, reported that one of its early voting sites in 2010, on average, voted only two people per hour.
One might understand the justification of a unanimous vote on the local level. After all, county board members know their counties, understand their voters and are aware of any special requirements in the administration of elections in their home counties. If one of the three local board members wants to make the case for more hours for their one-stop sites, then that board member must defend his position to the local county commissioners and the citizens of the county. More one-stop hours often means more sites, which means more personnel, more ballots and more equipment – adding up to much more money. The problem comes when the county’s unanimous decision must be voted on by the SBE and that vote is required to be unanimous as well.
Unintended consequences? No doubt state lawmakers would not have voted for this compromise if they had taken the time to think it through. One appointed board member unilaterally dictating his/her standards on 100 county boards of elections discredits the member and is an insult to the governor and the voters of North Carolina.
Director Strach made it clear to the local directors in the last paragraph of the memo when she said:
“Given the expressed wishes of a member of our State Board that only unforeseen circumstances will justify hours reduction requests, we expect very few of these requests. In any case, no such requests will be accepted after Friday, July 1, 2016.”
Note to the General Assembly: The last paragraph in Numbered Memo 2016-07 provides very important information: July 1, 2016 is the deadline to have reduction requests into the SBE. At this time there is expected to be very few if any requests submitted, even if a county knows that the number of hours utilized in 2012 was too high then and will be too high in 2016. The Legislature has the time in the short session to make changes to G.S. 163-227.2(g3) and strike the requirement for unanimous votes. This will allow local elections officials to do the job they were appointed and hired to do: administer elections.