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While the state mandated 13 days of early voting in the March primary, Wilson County officials debated additional days and places Wednesday morning.
Board of Elections Chairman Chip Futrell said that the N.C. Legislature requires all early voting sites be open from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays starting on Feb. 13 as well as voting hours from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 29. In the past, counties could have additional early voting sites with modified hours, but now all polling locations within individual counties must be open the same hours.
“In the past, we’ve had more flexibility, but basically the weekday hours have been set for us as a minimum,” he said. “We can go beyond that if we want to, and it is up to us to include any additional Saturdays or any Sundays.”
Linda Cooper-Suggs, chairman of the Wilson County Democratic Party, made the case for adding additional days on the weekends, especially a Sunday, to allow as many voters as possible to cast a ballot.
Futrell shared early voting numbers from the presidential primary in 2016 to provide some context for potential turnout. On the final Saturday before Election Day, 617 people cast a ballot in the March 2016 primary from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., so he was optimistic an additional two hours would help. When polls were open for eight hours a previous Saturday, 25 people an hour cast a ballot, and from 1 to 5 p.m. on the Sunday, 156 votes were cast.
“So the community has demonstrated they have the desire to vote in presidential elections on weekends,” he concluded.
More than 20 people from the public showed up at the Wednesday morning meeting with a handful voicing their opinions to the board. Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield was among those in attendance, voicing her support for officials as they worked through the mandates.
“I think the bottom line is it doesn’t matter what party you’re from, it is about having the right to vote, and I appreciate those who are making sacrifices to make sure voting rights are being exercised,” she said.
In the past, the county has had a secondary early voting site at the health department as well as a tertiary location.
“My question to the public is do you know that we’ve had other places or is this where you come to vote?” asked board member Doug Inscoe.
Cooper-Suggs said she recommended allowing residents to vote early at the health department to alleviate long lines.
“I think we’re moving toward an election that is going to electrify voters regardless of their reasoning or standing. ... For about 10 years, we have been almost hit with a barrage of things that seem to inhibit our right to vote,” said board member George Leach. “And I know I’m supposed to be objective on this board, but I did not lose my free speech when I took this position, so I want to say to inhibit voting in any way legally is against our democratic principles and values.”
After several audience members applauded, he made the case for Sunday early voting and was echoed by board member Wanda Davis.
“I move to establish one-stop early voting scheduled for Wilson County to be the state mandated minimum hours plus Saturday the 22nd from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the county board of election office,” Robert D. Brown said in a motion made over the phone.
“Does your motion include Sunday?” Futrell asked.
Brown replied, “Did you hear it? Then that is a ‘no.’”
“I just wanted to make sure,” said Futrell, who restated the motion and asked for a member to second it. After no one seconded the motion, it died before Leach pitched another motion. Leach suggested 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on March 22, 23 and 29 at the Board of Elections and the health department. While Davis seconded the motion, Brown and Inscoe voted against the motion.
Futrell requested another motion, noting it has to be a unanimous vote to send the early voting schedule to the state for approval. Brown recommended sending the motion as a non-unanimous vote instead.
“It could, but I’d like to exhaust our ideas to see if we can reach a compromise because I don’t want to see the state board make the decision for us,” Futrell said.
Futrell then posed a motion for early voting at the board of elections and the health department from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on both Saturdays and from 1 to 5 p.m. on the Sunday. The motion was defeated again as Brown voted against it.
Inscoe made a motion for the same hours and days but only at the Board of Elections. Brown attempted to amend the motion to 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday instead, but no one seconded it, and Inscoe’s original motion went to a vote and passed unanimously.
After nearly an hour of discussion, the board supported early voting on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. from Feb. 13 to 28 along with 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Feb. 22 and 29 and 1 to 5 p.m. on Feb. 23 at the Wilson County Board of Elections. The recommendation must receive state approval.