Early Voting Changes In North Carolina Spark Bipartisan Controversy At a time when early voting is becoming increasingly popular nationwide, a new law passed by North Carolina's GOP-controlled legislature cuts early voting sites by nearly 20 percent.
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Early Voting Changes In North Carolina Spark Bipartisan Controversy

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Early Voting Changes In North Carolina Spark Bipartisan Controversy

Early Voting Changes In North Carolina Spark Bipartisan Controversy

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This fall's election comes in several parts. Before the fight to win votes, there is a fight over who is allowed to vote. In Georgia, the Republican candidate for governor also heads the office that has been purging voter rolls. And then there's the fight over how people may vote.

Early voting starts today in North Carolina. It is so popular that more than half of North Carolina votes were cast early in 2016. For 2018, lawmakers altered the rules in ways that could lower turnout. Here's Alexandra Olgin of member station WFAE.

ALEXANDRA OLGIN, BYLINE: To prepare for early voting, elections director Adam Ragan in Gaston County, just west of Charlotte, is testing voting machines by running sample ballots through them.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOTING MACHINE BEEPING)

OLGIN: These machines were meant to be in five early voting locations throughout the county, but the new law requires all sites within a county to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week. And as a result, Ragan can only open three sites this election.

ADAM RAGAN: Early voting is very popular in Gaston County, and I would have loved to have more early voting locations. It came down to having more locations, you know, helping more voters versus our fiduciary responsibilities to the county.

OLGIN: Some Democratic lawmakers see this as another attack on voting rights in a state where voter ID, redistricting and early voting rules have all been struck down by the courts at various points in the last few years. During a June debate about early voting, Democratic State Representative Amos Quick said the requirement that if one site is open on the weekend, the rest also have to be, could discourage counties from having any weekend hours.

AMOS QUICK: Weekend early voting has been preferred and has been preferred by certain populations, and certain populations whose right to vote has not only been highlighted but has been protected in a recent court decision.

OLGIN: He's referring to black voters. An appeals court ruled a 2013 law, that among other things, cut early voting by a week, targeted African-Americans with, quote, "surgical precision." But Republicans who champion this law argue they're only trying to minimize confusion. Here's State Representative David Lewis, also during the June debate.

DAVID LEWIS: What we set out with the intention to do is to be able to make it more reliable and dependable, that the voters would know that the early voting site or sites in their county was open from a set time in the morning to a set time in the evening.

OLGIN: The law has some bipartisan opposition. Ron Wyatt is the Republican party chair of Iredell County, about 50 miles north of Charlotte. The county has had to cut its early voting sites in half.

RON WYATT: Frustrated is the word that I would use.

OLGIN: And he says even though this may not seem like an unfunded mandate...

WYATT: That's exactly what it translates to being at the end of the day.

OLGIN: Rural counties with smaller election budgets, like Iredell, are disproportionately affected by this change. While individual locations may be open longer, there will be 17 percent fewer sites this election. MIT political scientist Charles Stewart III says that for voters, convenience trumps hours.

CHARLES STEWART III: And there's a lot of research that's been done that suggests that whenever you move a polling place further away from a voter, they're less likely to vote there.

OLGIN: Stewart says the rule change could simply shift turnout to Election Day, which could mean longer lines at the polls. In a state where voting rights have become such a political hot potato, elections officials say they just go with the flow. Becky Galliher is the elections director in Iredell County.

BECKY GALLIHER: Due to court cases, legislation - all of that kind of thing factors in. And it just seems like we always have something each election that takes us in a different direction.

OLGIN: The question remains, will voters adapt as easily? For NPR News, I'm Alex Olgin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "NO SUGAR NO CREAM")

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