State legislation makes Beaufort County an exception to the rule

Published 12:09 am Monday, June 17, 2019

Legislation passed June 3 in Raleigh will save the county thousands of dollars in the next election.

According to Kelly Hopkins, director of the Beaufort County Board of Election, Beaufort County will be one of two counties in the state that will now be able to opt out of a state-mandated 17 days of one-stop voting at satellite sites.

“It’s a huge impact to Beaufort County and the amount of money we have to request to operate those satellite sites,” Hopkins said.

In 2018, the state passed a law requiring that every satellite site in every county across the state had to operate from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays for the entire 17-day one-stop period. During elections, the Board of Elections operates sites in Aurora, Belhaven and Chocowinity, and though voter turnout is low in the east, closing those sites and making voters come to Washington to vote was not an option, according to Hopkins.

“It’s a long way to come from those outlying areas to the east, and we can’t just put one in Belhaven; if we put one in Belhaven we have to put one in Aurora,” Hopkins said. “Prior to ’18, we could do it for a couple of days and that met the needs of the populations of Belhaven and Aurora. In ’18, the county board faced either cutting them off or have them open for the entire time. The board felt they couldn’t turn their back on Aurora and Belhaven.”

The issue breaks down to two topics: geography and math. The geography of Beaufort County means that if no satellite voting sites are opened in Aurora and Belhaven during early voting, it puts an undue burden on residents of those areas to travel the 30 to 40 minutes to Washington to vote. Not wanting to place that burden on voters, during the 2018 general election, the Board of Election opened those sites, and another in Chocowinity, for all 17 days, or 161 hours per site.

The math did not work out so well, according to Hopkins: Aurora’s payroll for the period was $6,100; Belhaven’s, $7,300. During the 17-day one-stop period, 464 voters cast ballots in Aurora; in Belhaven, 894. The Board of Elections ended up footing a cost of $8.19 per vote in Belhaven and $13.60 per vote in Aurora.
“You’re looking at an extra 15-20 grand to operate these satellite sites,” Hopkins said.

So when the primary for Walter B. Jones Jr.’s seat came up in Congress in April, again, the board was faced with a decision. They opened the Aurora and Belhaven sites, but decided Chocowinity was close enough to Washington that voting across the river would not be a hardship.

However, with another primary for the congressional seat coming up July 9 and the special general election in September, the board was looking at spending a lot of money to open those sites, and decided to enlist the help of Rep. Keith Kidwell.

“Because of the geographic location of our county seat, because it’s on the western edge of the county and there’s a river right in the middle of it, we thought the legislature would be able to give us an exemption,” Hopkins said. “The only other exemption is Ocracoke in Hyde County because its only access is by ferry.”

“They had written the rules — and most counties, that’s going to work out okay, when they don’t have big waters dividing them,” Kidwell said. “But to have a polling place open (in Aurora or Belhaven) for 17 days is ridiculous.”

The bill deadline had passed, but Kidwell did his research and tacked the exemption onto the Voter ID bill (HB 646) which then had to be approved by committee.

The exemption language lays out how geography swayed the decision approve the legislation, stating that all one-stop satellite sites must operate by the state mandate with the exception of: “Up to two sites in a county that is bounded by the largest sound on the East Coast and the county seat is located at the intersection of two rivers, which divide the county.”

“We were really happy that Rep. Kidwell was able to do this for us,” Hopkins said.