This morning I attended the Orange County Board of Elections meeting where they determined the early voting plan for the Fall 2014 elections. I have been attending BOE meetings in Orange County for several years, and this was by far the largest turnout (over 50 people by my count) I have ever seen.
This meeting was called to consider adjusting the fall early voting plan to include voting hours on Sunday. At the board's meeting a week ago, some citizens representing Jews for Justice requested expansion to Sunday to provide a non-weekday voting option that didn't fall on the Jewish holy day, Saturday. The meeting opened with the Chair asking the audience to try to keep their comments brief. The board intended to limit public comment to 30 minutes, with each side receiving 15 minutes for their speakers to speak. I spoke in support of extending voting hours to Sunday, as did Hillsborough Commissioner Jenn Weaver and Carrboro Board of Aldermen Member Randee Haven- O'Donnell. Several other citizens spoke in support, including representatives from Jews for Justice, the League of Women Voters, and the Orange County Democratic Party.
Next, the board heard public comment from those opposed to early voting on Sunday. Several members of the Orange County Republican Party spoke against expanding hours to Sunday. Most speakers argued that expanding hours to Sunday was not a good use of tax dollars, and that residents had plenty of voting options right now.
The conversation got particularly heated when one of the speakers called voting a "privilege". An older African-American man stood up in the back and challenged the speaker, stating that voting is a right, not a privilege. The Chair, Kathy Knight, tried to get him to sit down but he continued to speak his mind and asked to be given time to formally address the board. The racial undertones of the interaction were clear, the man spoke about the history of limiting African-American access to the ballot box, and arguments about voting being a "privilege" versus a "right" made the interchange reminiscent of the civil rights era. The sense that we were witnessing an argument that could have happened decades ago was aided by the fact that the air conditioning was broken. Large fans had been placed in the back of the room that made it difficult to hear, and many speakers had to shout just to be heard.
Finally, the board considered the options before them. Jamie Cox (the appointee from the Orange County Democratic Party) spoke in support of adding Sunday hours, but neither of the two members appointed by the Republican Party agreed. Ultimately the board was able to come to a unanimous agreement to extend voting in Hillsborough on weekdays earlier in the morning (to 8 AM), and to extend voting hours at all sites on the first Saturday by one hour (to end at 2 PM). Jamie again attempted to negotiate a plan for early voting on Sunday by proposing to open just the Hillsborough early voting site on Sunday in exchange for not extending hours at all sites on Saturday, but again neither of the Republican appointed members agreed.
All in all, the board passed a fair, albeit sub-optimal plan for the fall. They extended the total hours offered during early voting to 303, and increased access to the early morning on weekdays for folks who might want to vote before going to work.
There is still more work to be done to expand access to voting in Orange County. A resident on the way out of the meeting commented to me that he thought expanding hours in the morning was more important to increasing access than adding Sunday hours. The board reiterated their interest in having an early voting site on the eastern side of Chapel Hill for future elections. In 2016, the board will have to provide as many total hours of early voting as they provided in 2012 because of an amendment introduced by Senator Josh Stein in the General Assembly last year. The plan approved for this fall does not surpass the hours provided in 2012, so there are opportunities for increasing sites and hours in the near future.