BY CATHERINE KOZAK
BY CATHERINE KOZAK
Morning hours have been added to the early voting site at the Dare County Board of Elections office, addressing criticism that the board’s prior schedule offered limited hours for voters on their way to work and school.
The Manteo site will now open at 8:30 a.m. instead of 11 a.m., according to the plan submitted to the state Board of Elections on Aug. 16. It will still close at 6 p.m.
The board’s final plan does not expand the hours available for weekend voting. The only weekend hours at any site will be 8:30 – 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 5, in Manteo.
“This earlier opening will better serve the voters of Dare County and increases our total early voting hours offered to 262.5 hours,” Dare County Board of Elections Director Michelle Barnes said in an email.
Early voting will be available for 13 days from Oct. 20 to Nov. 5 at the Board of Elections office and for 12 days at satellite sites in Southern Shores, Kill Devil Hills and Buxton. On Oct. 26 and Nov. 1, satellite locations will be opened 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. to accommodate public meetings. Otherwise, the satellites will offer early voting from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.
At Monday’s county Board of Commissioners meeting, two speakers representing non-partisan voters advocacy groups asked the board during the public comment period to support expansion of early voting hours at Dare County locations in the morning and on weekends.
Audrey Esposito, with the Dare County League of Women Voters, said that statistics show that Saturday voting in Dare County had twice the number of voters than weekday voters at the other locations.
“Based on the data, the hours should be expanded on weekends,” she told the board.
Representing Democracy NC, Sandy Semans Ross asked the board to adopt a resolution in favor of an expanded early voting schedule.
“Overwhelmed polls on Election Day leads to more errors,” she said, “and lack of good voting opportunities can cost candidates races if it keeps their supporters from casting ballots.”
Commissioner Warren Judge made a motion in support of the resolution, but it was not seconded.
“We certainly have a geographically drawn-out county, we have a population that works numerous jobs,” Judge said. “If we compare ourselves to other areas, we are woefully behind in the access that we provide.”
The board voted unanimously to invite the chair of the Board of Elections, Donna Elms, to its next meeting to explain the rationale behind the early voting schedule and other concerns. Although Judge agreed to the motion, he pointed out that the early voting issue would be a moot point by then.
State election officials have warned local election boards to expect heavy turnout in November, and encouraged scheduling enough early voting hours at different locations to accommodate the additional voters.
Dare County had a total of 26,656 registered voters in the 2008 general election and 68.14 percent turnout; 28,230 registered voters in 2012 and 64.30 percent turnout. Currently, there are 28,824 registered voters in Dare County.
According to Democracy NC, 56 percent of North Carolinians who went to the polls in 2012 cast their ballots during the 17-day early voting period. But Dare County ranks 93 out of the 100 counties in the number of early voters, which voting advocates say indicates inconvenient hours and locations.
The number of early voting days was slashed by seven days in the state’s controversial voter ID law, but those days were restored when a federal judge overturned the law earlier this month. The ruling, however, left it up to local election boards to set hours and locations for early voting.
Shortly before the judge had thrown the law out, the Dare board had agreed to schedule early voting hours on Monday – Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the mandated Saturday morning before Election Day. It subsequently expanded the hours in the afternoon to 6 p.m. at the satellite locations.
The three-member Dare County Board of Elections is Republican controlled. In addition to Elms, the members are Carole Warnecki, secretary, and Lynda Midgett.
According the an article published Aug. 16 in the Raleigh News & Observer, the North Carolina Republican Party encouraged Republican county election board members “to make party line changes to early voting.”
The party’s executive director Dallas Woodhouse had sent an email on Sunday, according to the newspaper, that recommended ways to restrict early voting — limit Sunday voting, provide fewer voting opportunities and don’t include sites at college campuses.
By law, counties must offer only one early voting site during regular business hours and on the Saturday morning before the election.
The additional morning hours announced Wednesday by the Dare County Board of Elections were welcomed, said Lorelei DiBernardo, president of Dare County League of Women Voters. But she said she is still disappointed that there are limited morning hours and no weekend hours offered at the satellite sites.
“Do they want people to vote, or not?” she said. “I think there should be weekend hours on both Saturday and Sunday. There are three weekends – all the weekends should be open some hours.”