In fall 2010, more than 900,000 people voted prior to Election Day in North Carolina. Our state currently allows local counties to provide early voting sites for periods up to three weeks before Election Day. Here in Orange County, early voting is particularly popular. On the final days of early voting in 2010, the line at Morehead Planetarium snaked through the planetarium, down the stairs and across the quad as professors, residents and students lined up to vote.
Our state’s early voting program is a national model for increasing voter access, conveniently allowing citizens to vote and register on the same day. Yet last week Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a bill (HB 658) to limit the time window for early voting in NC. At first glance, the motives of bill sponsor Rep. Bert Jones of Rockingham County seem tame. He says he wants to cut down on the cost of running early voting sites and save money for local Boards of Elections.
But this legislation would have a negative impact on citizens’ voting access in Orange County, particularly affecting students who frequently take advantage of early voting on campus at Morehead Planetarium. Student body presidents have repeatedly fought to maintain early voting access at the planetarium because they know it increases student turnout.
When I was president of UNC Young Democrats, our get out the vote efforts were focused on getting students to vote at the planetarium prior to Election Day because the logistics of voting on that day are challenging for students. Morehead Planetarium is not a voting site on Election Day. Precinct boundaries on campus are difficult to determine, and several polling places are far from campus, preventing students living in residence halls without access to cars from getting to their polling sites miles away. It is not uncommon for students to be denied access to vote if they go to the wrong precinct on Election Day.
Early voting does not just benefit Orange County students. Early voting has typically been open on Saturday, giving working citizens more flexibility to find a voting time that fits their schedule. Rural voters and the middle class face many challenges getting to the polls. The more flexible hours available for voting, the more opportunity all people have to participate in the democratic process.
HB 658 is another effort by the new leadership in Raleigh to systematically dismantle institutions that ensure voting access for all citizens. Republicans have proposed policies that would require citizens to provide a photo ID to vote, end the process by which citizens could “one-stop” vote and lump minority citizens together in redistricting congressional districts. Shortening early voting ensures that lines are longer during the early voting period and on Election Day, limiting access for students, rural community members and lower-income citizens. HB 658 is bad election policy specifically designed to impact already marginalized groups. Let’s stand up and tell our legislators to reject efforts that limit access to our right to vote.