North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell issue an emergency order for the November general election on July 17 during the Friday afternoon media dump period usually reserved for things you hope not too many people notice.
Brinson Bell’s emergency order clocks in at just over seven pages, the first five-and-a-half pages of which are justifications for the order.
Most of the remainder of the order consists of administrative matters that could have better been handled through memos than emergency orders. However, it also included an item that has proven to be controversial (page 6): “Each county board of elections shall open at least one one-stop early voting site per 20,000 registered voters in the county” SBE public information officer Pat Gannon clarified Brinson Bell’s order via email, stating “it’s one site per 20,000 voters or portion thereof.”
While that part of the order may seem like administrative boilerplate at first glance, it immediately ignited controversy. In an emailed media release, Sen. Ralph Hise (R- Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Yancey) stated:
It should raise red flags for everybody when the Board of Elections, which is controlled by one political party, issues an ’emergency’ order late in the afternoon on a Friday. It’s an open question as to whether this order is even legal.
And indeed, there is major cause for concern about this late-afternoon partisan rule. It appears that areas with high concentrations of Democrats will have dozens of early voting sites while more Republican areas may have just one.
How is it fair or equitable for voters of one party to be able to walk down the street to vote early, while voters of another party will need to drive for miles and miles to vote early?
To understand the reaction to Brinson Bell’s order, you must remember that county boards of elections must balance placing early voting sites to serve as many people as possible with providing reasonable access to everyone across the county, all within the confines of limited money and personnel.
For example, while there was much controversy over whether to open the second least-used early voting site in Cumberland County (Smith Recreation Center, the fifth early voting site in Fayetteville) for the March primary, there was no such controversy about the least-used early voting site (Gray’s Creek Recreation Center), because the later was the only early voting site serving the southern half of the county. (Site-use data from Vote Tracker.)
So Hise’s concern is that Brinson Bell’s emergency order has upset that balance to the detriment of Republican voters. In addition, from Common Cause v. Lewis, we know that discrimination based on partisanship is a thing under North Carolina law.
So, does Brinson Bell’s emergency order discriminatorily disadvantage Republican voters, as Hise alleges?
More than half of North Carolina counties (53) had more early voting sites in 2016 than Brinson Bell ordered for 2020 and another 24 counties matched the order’s requirement in 2016 (although some of those likely had fewer total hours of operation than the order requires). That leaves 23 counties that will have to expand their number of early voting sites under the order. They are listed in Table 1.
As seen in the table, Brinson Bell’s order requires 38 additional early voting sites in counties carried by Hilary Clinton in 2016 and 29 additional early voting sites in counties carried by Trump. So, Brinson Bell’s emergency order has only a small detrimental effect on Republicans. That effect is likely to be even smaller since neither Mecklenburg nor Wake county is likely to be able to meet the massive expansion in early voting sites that she is ordering them to make (the order does have an escape clause).
When you consider that Brinson Bell’s order requires at least 403 early voting sites statewide and that there were 450 early voting sites statewide in 2016, that nine-site (or less) difference does not rise to a level of serious concern.