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Early voting in Western North Carolina is expected to exceed previous years, according to numbers reported by the N.C. State Board of Elections by each county, with some extending hours and reaching into county coffers to meet the additional voting surge.
With only a few days remaining until the Nov. 6 election, 1,876,309 registered voters in North Carolina have already cast a ballot as of Oct. 30, including people serving in the military or living overseas. The total for absentee votes cast in 2008 was 2,638,915.
Early voting ends on Nov. 3 in North Carolina. Find a one-stop voting location in your county here.
“In 2008, more people voted early than on election day,” said Johnnie McLean, deputy director of the State Board of Elections. “Numbers for the 2012 election indicate it will likely surpass that.”
Buncombe County’s turnout is a good indication that McLean’s prediction could hold true at the county level, too, though an unseasonable snowfall in Western North Carolina this week could diminish those numbers or could create a rush in the final days, particularly in areas hit the hardest.
“In 2008, 89,105 voted early at 15 sites,” said Trena Parker, director of the Buncombe County Board of Elections. “This year, we have 18 early voting sites, so it could hit 100,000.”
There are more than 180,000 registered voters in Buncombe County, so if that happens, more than half of those voters will cast their ballots before Election Day.
Parker said there are several reasons this has become the trend.
“There are people who have challenging jobs and may find it easier to vote with more days to do that,” she said. “Senior citizens find it easier because the lines aren’t as long, and they can get in and get out faster. And, a lot have already made their choices and just want to get it done.”
While voters may have cast ballots early, that doesn’t change when the results will come in. While a ballot is scanned after each voter completes it, they are not counted until Election Day, McLean said.
Still, early voting keeps county election boards from having to purchase additional equipment and pay additional poll workers to handle the onslaught of voters for a single day election, McLean said.
“Without this opportunity (early voting), everyone would have to go vote on Election Day,” she said. “There’s not a county in North Carolina that could handle all the registered voters in one day.”
Some counties, primarily larger cities like Raleigh and Charlotte, have experienced long waits due to the tremendous turnout for early voting. Gary Bartlett, director of the State Board of Elections, asked counties to extend early voting hours, if needed, to make sure everyone is accommodated.
“Most of the counties that have done that are extending hours on the final day of in-person early voting,” McLean said.
The hours for the final day were scheduled to be 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Many counties that have opted to extend hours will allow people to vote up until 5 p.m., she said.
“However, anyone who is in line at 1 p.m. on the final day will be allowed to vote, regardless of how long it takes to clear the line,” McLean said.
Most of the Western North Carolina counties have reported brief early voting waiting times of between 5 and 20 minutes, and most directors say there are currently no plans to extend hours.
“Generally, the most voters are having to wait is five to 10 minutes,” said Karen Brinson, director for the Transylvania County Board of Elections. “The peak time occurs between 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., increasing the wait to 20 minutes.”
Macon County is one of the exceptions. It uses the Macon County Board of Elections’ office for early voting and will extend its hours as it did in 2008, said Director Kim Bishop.
In North Carolina, poll hours on Election Day are 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m.
Doing more with less
Despite the demand from voters, an issue throughout North Carolina has been inadequate county funding for early voting and Election Day services.
In 2008, the state Board of Elections used more than $1 million in federal Help America Vote Act funds to expand early voting opportunities across North Carolina and used $3 million of those funds to pay the maintenance fees for the counties’ voting machines.
There is still more than $4 million of HAVA money available to North Carolina, but state legislators have frozen the HAVA account. Counties were forced to fund maintenance costs, instead, this year. Macon County is one of several counties forced to pick up the shortage in federal funds, Bishop said.
Rutherford County has three early voting sites this year, according to Debbie Bedford, director of the Rutherford County Board of Elections. That’s one fewer than what was offered in 2008, but, even so, the board had to ask for more county money and is very close to the limits of what was budgeted, Bedford said.
Transylvania County has one early voting site, the same as in 2008, but that site is open more hours than four years ago, Brinson said. Losing the federal funds created a $30,000 cost to the county this year, she said. The board decided to extend hours prior to Bartlett’s recommendation, she said.
“When our board developed the one-stop implementation plan in August, they chose, at that time, to have our site open more hours than in 2008,” Brinson said.
One problem not shared by all counties is a glitch in touch-screen machines, McLean said. Some boards of elections that use the touch screens, including Cumberland, Guilford and Davidson counties, have reported that when voters indicate a presidential vote for Mitt Romney, the machine reverts to a vote for Barack Obama, McLean said.
A verification process, however, catches the mistake before the vote is registered and poll workers are recalibrating the machines, McLean said.
Haywood County has four of the touch-screen machines at its two early voting sites, but nothing like that has happened, said Doyle Teague with the Haywood County Board of Elections.
“During the logic and accuracy testing of the machines (which is overseen by a bipartisan team), all candidates and choices are tested to make sure that each selection is working properly and no such issues occur.” Teague said. “During testing, there were no abnormalities found.”
“To date, there have been no reports of any selection being reverted from any candidate to another candidate in Haywood County,” Teague said.
“Poll workers are instructing voters that voting machines are sensitive and to be mindful of that,” he added in an email. “On an iVotronic voting machine, you must review your selections before you can cast your ballot. If an item has been selected in error, the voter can change their selection from that review screen.”
A brief history of early voting
An absentee ballot has been an important part of the election process since it was used in colonial times as early as the 17th century. Absentee voting was first used extensively during the Civil War when many soldiers would have been unable to return home to vote.
After the Civil War, most of the absentee-voter laws were repealed. They were reinstated during World War I and by the passage of the Soldier Voting Act during World War II. Absentee voting was eventually enacted into law in April 1963.
Before 2000, anyone wanting to vote by absentee ballot in North Carolina was required to have a valid excuse for not waiting until Election Day to cast a ballot. Allowed excuses included an illness or physical disability, living or being outside the county (including members of the military, overseas employees and college students), working as an appointed election officer or poll worker at a polling place other than his or her own, having to work a required shift during polling hours, a religious observance, and incarceration for a non-felony crime.
In 2000, for the first time, North Carolina dropped the need for an excuse to vote by absentee ballot; and in 2002, the state extended that privilege to mail-in absentee ballots.
All photos by Colby Rabon/Carolina Public Press.
Correction: An early version of this story contained incorrect early voting numbers for Henderson and Madison counties in 2008. Those numbers have been updated.
Visit ELECTION 2012 for Carolina Public Press’ election coverage.