By RICK CURL
Of The Record Staff
Voters in Harnett County remain unable to cast their One Stop Early Voting ballots in the upcoming primary on Sundays.
According to Harnett County Board of Elections Director Claire Jones, the county board of elections decided 2-1 against allowing Sunday One Stop Early Voting during a meeting last week in Lillington.
The decision leaves early voters only normal business hours at the board of elections office to cast their ballots.
During the meeting, Chairman Jim Currin and Joey Powell Jr. supported early voting only during normal office hours, leaving Tony Spears the lone member asking for Sunday voting.
The decision disappointed Harnett County Democratic Chair Jean Sivoli who was in attendance. She called the decision to leave out Sunday voting entirely, at the very least, partisan, and at the most, a means of imposing the board’s own ideologies on the voters.
“The actions of the two members on the board continue to display a continuation of them pushing their personal ideologies onto the voters of Harnett County,” Ms. Sivoli said. “They took an oath to support both the Constitution of the United States and of the great State of North Carolina. They are to represent all the voters of Harnett County in a nonpartisan way. Unfortunately, that is not the case in our county.
“We have historically experienced lower turnout in mid-term elections,” Ms. Sivoli said. “Providing more locations, extended hours and Sunday voting will not only help people get to the polls, but will also reduce wait times, resulting in higher turnout.”
Ms. Sivoli also cited economic reasons in furtherance of the request for extended hours and Sundays.
“As an agricultural- and military- based employment county, we have many hardworking citizens whose work hours and responsibilities make it difficult for them to vote during business hours and even on Saturdays,” Ms. Sivoli said.
She added that a large base of voters work outside the county.
“Between 30 and 40 percent of Harnett County workers leave the county to commute to a job,” Ms. Sivoli said. “Recent statistics show that about 30 percent of Fort Bragg personnel live in Harnett County.”
The Democratic Party leader also cited the age of many voters and their ability to reach the polls as another reason to extend the hours.
“Many elderly citizens who have paid taxes and supported our communities their whole lives have a difficult time getting to the polls because of basic transportation issues,” Ms. Sivoli said. “We have churches and volunteers ready to provide rides to the polls on Sunday following services. Providing Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5 p.m. will help solve that problem.”
The Harnett County GOP responded to Ms. Sivoli’s comments by issuing a statement to The Daily Record Friday morning.
In their rebuttal to Ms. Sivoli’s comments, GOP officials offered their own reasons for not choosing to conduct One Stop Early Voting on Sundays.
They first cited low numbers of voters at the polls on Sunday.
“Sunday voting has only been a reality for a very few number of elections,” the statement said. “The number of voters who exercise their right to vote on the traditional Sabbath is both small and sparse at best.”
The statement also indicated a concern for the elections staff and their personal lives and well being. “Further, the hard-working elections staff really need a full day to recharge, visit with family and friends and enjoy a bit of leisure time,” the statement said. “Finally, the cost of staffing the extra election day is a cost many of our boards just cannot sustain.”
Dems Critical Of BOE Members
According to Ms. Sivoli, the pleas of the voters fell on deaf ears and the board failed to heed a warning issued to them by the courts following a challenge to the voting in Coats during last November’s General Election.
“Even after being cautioned at the court hearing concerning the Coats municipal elections that the board should be more open to listening to the voters, there was no further discussion among board members about the public comments,” Ms. Sivoli said. “A total lack of concern was shown by both Mr. Powell and Mr. Currin.”
Judicial Review Ahead
Because the local board couldn’t reach a unanimous agreement, the rules used in the previous election remain in place with a caveat.
“The board must be unanimous in the decision on additional hours, locations, etc.,” Ms. Jones said. “Since they weren’t able to do that, technically there is no plan approved. So, it goes to the state board of elections for them to review and make the decision.”
Therein lies the problem. With no current state board of elections in place to hear the two sides from Harnett County, state law requires a judicial review.
All three members of the Harnett County Board of Elections will be scheduled to appear before a Wake County Superior Court judge and answer any questions regarding the two proposals, before the final determination is announced.
Timing And History
Bringing the court system into the mix to determine the ultimate outcome brings with it another complication — timing of the final ruling.
According to Val Applewhite of Democracy NC who was present at the meeting, approximately 52 of the 100 counties in the state have similar predicaments, meaning the court system could face a major backlog when it comes to making the determinations needed.
“With that many counties involved, there’s bound to be a backlog of cases in the court system,” she said. “If the court doesn’t get through all of the backlog, it will be office hours voting, which will disenfranchise more people. Do the math, that leaves 48 other counties. And you have to wonder how many of them will have the same issues.”
A similar situation in 2016 forced state officials to make a determination on the same issues now under scrutiny when the Harnett County board was stalemated with a split vote.
Then, the state board opted to not have Sunday voting, hence the rules remain the same, for now.
“Our thoughts at Democracy NC is we may have to do the best we can getting the vote out in the primary and then turn our attention to making sure Sunday voting is a part of the General Election,” Ms. Applewhite said.
If things do stand as they are — which is uncertain and by no means set in stone — One Stop Early Voting would be available during normal business hours at the Harnett County Board of Elections, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on the final Saturday before the election, projected this year to be 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“As we all know, voting is the foundation that supports our democracy,” Ms. Sivoli said. “This is, and should be, a non-partisan subject with the first priority being to protect and encourage each person’s right to vote.”
Republican leadership indicated in their statement they believe the same. However, they also insisted Sunday is meant for family.
“While we firmly believe each and every registered voter has both the right and obligation to exercise this most vital of rights,” the statement said, “the simple fact is that Sundays should be spent enjoying family, faith and leisure as each individual chooses.”