Bill Brian Jr. already sounded weary, and the meeting hadn’t even started. It was 5 p.m. Wednesday at the county office-building, and a typically sleepy meeting of the county board of elections had turned into a marquee event. Around 100 people had shown up to hear the three-person commission decide how early voting would work, and the board had already been forced to move the meeting to a much larger space. Brian, the board’s chair, mentioned the “flood of emails” he’d received, and announced that he’d allow citizens to speak briefly. “Please try to be civil,” he said with a sigh. Over the next 40 minutes, a long line of county residents—including veteran activists, operatives, and assorted gadflies—stood up and delivered their thoughts on early voting. There were students who wanted polling locations on campus. One man wanted a location nearer to the bus terminal. Another railed against opponents of voter ID rules, describing them as “racist” for believing that blacks would be less able or willing to navigate them. The chair of the county Republican Party rose to say he didn’t care how much early voting there was, but pleaded for an end to Sunday voting, which he saw as an affront to God. Several others were just as insistent about the need for polls to be open on the Sabbath; others pointed out that some denominations kept different Sabbaths.
What had transformed a normally moribund bureaucratic meeting into a heated encounter? A little over two weeks ago, the federal Fourth Circuit Court struck down the sweeping changes to voting laws North Carolina’s Republican-led government made in 2013, finding the law was intended to be discriminate against black voters. Among the rules the court struck down were a requirement to show photo ID to vote, a reduction in early voting, and an end to same-day voter registration. Opponents of voter ID rules around the country hailed the ruling as a huge victory and a landmark decision. In many ways, it was.
But the ruling also placed decisions about how to handle early voting back with county boards of elections, where early-voting plans have become the latest partisan battleground in the struggle over when and how people can vote. Democrats and voting advocates charge that Republicans are trying to use the county boards as a way to achieve many of the same discriminatory effects that the federal court struck down. They can point to a memo from the executive director of the state GOP to Republican board members, calling for them to push through “party line changes” to voting plans. The decisions could have a large impact in North Carolina, which has become a key swing state in the presidential election.