Early voting relief for Ocracoke
Hyde County got some relief last week from a new law related to early voting for the upcoming Nov. 6 general election.
After receiving complaints about a law that eliminated early voting on the Saturday before a primary or Election Day from elections officials and people across North Carolina, the N.C. General Assembly, on June 28 amended that law by restoring early voting on the Saturday before a primary or Election Day. On June 27, the Republican-controlled General Assembly overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of legislation that eliminated that Saturday from the early voting period.
The legislation, House Bill 335, passed by the General Assembly on June 28 made changes to the previous legislation, Senate Bill 325. The new law, signed earlier this month by Cooper, restores the possibility of a last Saturday of early voting before Election Day. It requires counties to conduct one-stop early voting from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the final Saturday before an election. It allows them to do so until 5 p.m.
Cooper, a Democrat, contended in his veto message that Senate Bill 325 would have made it more difficult for some people to vote. Critics of the new law have said the last Saturday before the election has been popular with voters, especially black residents.
Republicans contended the changes would improve access to voting, noting that the previous law required early voting to end early in the afternoon on the final Saturday. They also said Senate Bill 325 provided uniformity across the state when it comes to early voting times.
Some critics of the new law, including Democracy North Carolina, believe the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. early voting period during weekdays could cause problems for rural counties, especially when it comes to opening satellite voting places. It might be cost prohibitive for such counties to open satellite sites. They also say local boards of elections should have discretion when it comes to setting their early voting schedules because the mandated one-size-fits-all schedule might not be practical for them.
Viola Williams, elections director for Hyde County, told NC Policy Watch that without the changes to the law she probably would have been forced to close one of the county’s two early voting sites in order to afford the changes. That site would have been the one on Ocracoke Island.
In an email to the Daily News, Williams wrote: “The passing of HB 335 will definitely help with early voting on the island. In past elections, we have always offered 2 days of early voting in Ocracoke. Under SB 325, we would have to offer the full 156 hours minimum. It would not be financially feasible to continue to offer early voting at that site because of the cost to run the extra site in comparison to the voter population and voter turnout numbers. I think there was a lot of negative feedback after the law was passed about how it would cut off their access to early voting. The new law was written in a way that only Ocracoke could meet the conditions, but also, in a way that gives details as to why they are the exception. With that site being the exception to SB 325 hours requirement, we can continue to offer the 2 days that has always worked well for them without placing a financial burden on the county.”
House Bill 335 allows Hyde County some flexibility with the mandated early voting hours if the following conditions that apply to an island are met:
- it has permanent inhabitation of residents residing in an unincorporated area.
- it is bounded on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by a coastal sound.
- it contains either a National Wildlife Refuge or a portion of a National Seashore.
- it has no bridge access to the mainland of the county and is only accessible by marine vessel.
Some lawmakers said the Ocracoke-specific fix does nothing for other small, rural communities who will be squeezed into shutting down some early voting sites.