Adequate resources for early voting critical for smooth election

by Jordan Green

The distance between the ground and the tower is great.

On the ground, local boards of election and voting-rights advocates are preparing for one of the most heated, partisan, high-stakes elections in memory. In the tower, the Republican leadership in Raleigh has been writing a state budget that includes $336 million in tax breaks for businesses, including super-wealthy ones, but has been seemingly deaf to pleas to allocate $600,000 in state funds to qualify for a $4.1 million match from the federal government.

The federal funding from the Help America Vote Act — Remember it? Congress passed it and President Bush signed it in 2002 to prevent a repeat of the 2000 Florida election fiasco — would pay for maintenance and li censing of voting machines and, most significantly, early-voting sites.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider that North Carolina is one of a handful of states in play for the presidential election. The outcome of the election here could determine whether Barack Obama gets another term in the White House or not. And remember that Obama carried North Carolina by just 14,177 votes, or 0.32 percent, in 2008. That means that if only 142 Obama voters stayed home in each of the state’s 100 counties, North Carolina would have ended up in McCain’s column.

“What we hear is that the top leadership of the state Senate, the president pro tem, has been hearing from national Republicans not to make voting more convenient by helping counties with money that might be used for early-voting sites, and that’s a pretty disturbing attitude that they have,” Bob Hall, the executive director of the Democracy North Carolina, told me. “They’re not interested in helping people vote.”

My calls to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s office seeking a comment on voting funds on Monday and Tuesday, as the Senate was racing to adjourn, were not returned.

It would be nice to have the Senate leadership take the time to explain why funding for elections isn’t a priority, but at the same time the cries of foul might have a touch of hyperbole. There’s clearly a partisan cast to the debate: Democrats, with strong constituencies among African-American and young voters, tend to want to maximize opportunities to vote. Those voters also tend to turn out in lower numbers. Republicans are typically older, more residentially established and vote more consistently.

Small wonder then that Republicans seem to be less concerned about access to the ballot and more about voter fraud.

Notwithstanding concerns raised by Democracy North Carolina that the frozen HAVA funds could result in problems on Election Day, Guilford County Elections Director George Gilbert said the county commission allocated sufficient funds to pay for an adequate number of earlyvoting sites this year.

“We don’t like to rely on the state to run good elections,” he told me. “Our board of commissioners has budgeted funds that were needed to run elections for the past 25 years. There are a lot of boards of commissioners that cut everything they can, including elections, and then it looks like their boards of elections did a lousy job.”

Gilbert said his office operated about 18 early voting sites during the watershed 2008 election. This year, they plan to operate 21 and add 1,800 more hours.

Without early voting in 2008, Gilbert said, polling places on Election Day would have been overwhelmed by long lines. Contrary to the hopes of Democrats and fears of Repub licans, Gilbert also said there’s no evidence that early voting increases turnout.

“Early voting doesn’t favor one party or the other,” he said. “It’s always been proportionate to registration. Early voting just makes it more convenient for whoever wants to vote.

“Turnout’s a function of the election itself — who’s running and who gets excited about it,” Gilbert added. “And how much money is spent on television advertising before the election.”

The Forsyth County Elections Board operated 14 early-voting sites in 2008. Elections Director Rob Coffman plans to bring a plan for consideration to his three-member elections board outlining the number, location and hours of early-voting sites.

“We’re going to have to self-fund,” he told YES! Weekly. “We have to look at our dollars and see what we can do. There are some creative things we can do. We could have the same number of locations but maybe reduce our hours. Our main expense is staff. The board does have some flexibility.”

It’s critical that Guilford and Forsyth counties have adequate resources for this year’s presidential election. Guilford and Forsyth counties together accounted for about 10 percent of all presidential votes cast in the state in 2008, compared to about 12 percent each in Mecklenburg and Wake counties.

Forsyth County Board of Elections Chair Linda Sutton, who, incidentally, is also a field organizer for Democracy North Carolina, indicated that she favors maintaining the same number of early-voting sites.

“As long as we can match 2008, whether people are coming out for or against Obama, either way it’s going to be a heavy turnout,” she said. “I want everybody to have an opportunity to vote and to have as many sites as we did in 2008.”