After disagreement among members of the Buncombe County Board of Elections, the North Carolina State Board of Elections has accepted a plan for 11 early voting locations in the county.
“Never before has the Buncombe County Board of Elections failed to agree upon an early voting plan,” wrote three local board members to the State Board of Elections in defense of their proposed plan against a challenge by fellow member Jake Quinn.
But this year also marks the first time the board has navigated planning since the passage of new state legislation in June. The Uniform & Expanded Early Voting Act established a standard period for early voting and requires that every early voting location in a county must have the same hours on the same days, with weekends being optional. The law, plus a later addition to it, establishes an 18-day early voting period with 7 a.m.-7 p.m. hours on weekdays. If a county offers voting on the weekends, it must offer the same hours at all locations.
The local Election Services office had submitted a budget proposal to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners prior to the new law’s passage. That funding request based its estimates on expenses for the most recent years with midterm elections, 2010 and 2014, when county Election Services offered 14 and 15 early voting locations, respectively. In most cases, those locations were open eight hours per day. Early voting participation rose from 34,307 in 2010 to 41,747 in 2014, while total participation in the county rose by a smaller percentage, from 80,528 in 2010 to 87,300 in 2014. This year, with longer hours required for each day of early voting, Elections Services staff proposed 10 locations to accommodate the law’s requirements while operating within the budget allocated by Buncombe County.
The 10-location plan designated the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center as the main early voting location. The Grant Center was the closest of the 10 locations to downtown, which at-large board member Jake Quinn says he found “just wrong.” On that point, he says, his fellow board members agreed and instructed staff to find a new voting location downtown. Staff proposed 30 Valley St., behind the Buncombe County Detention Center, in the county’s Permits & Inspections building.
The Board of Elections approved the selection of 30 Valley St. as the downtown location, and three of the board’s four members, John Jay Watson, Lucy Smith and Stephen Duncan, decided that it should replace the Grant Center, which served as the main location for early voting in 2016; the amended plan slated the Valley Street location to be the main location for 2018.
But the Grant Center, argued Quinn, is much more accessible to African-American residents and its elimination would create an obstacle to voting for those residents. “I thought that was just as wrong as not having early voting downtown,” he says. Quinn proposed an alternate plan that kept both the Grant Center and and 30 Valley St., which is less than 2 miles from the Grant Center. The plan proposed seeking additional county funding to cover the increased cost of the 11th location. Both plans called for the Elections Services staff-proposed hours, including two Saturdays and one Sunday.
Finding no support among Buncombe County Board of Elections members, Quinn asked the state board to resolve the question.
In defense of the plan that Watson, Smith and Duncan voted to adopt, the three wrote that Election Services Director Trena Parker Velez had informed them the 10-location plan operated “at the limits of the budget, and no money had been held back.” Further, they wrote, an additional site would cost $40,000. Based on anticipated voter activity, the 10-site plan was “reasonable, supportable, and fiscally and geographically sound,” and keeping the Grant Center site would be “duplicative and excessive.”
In his own proposal, Quinn argued that moving the main site would disrupt “the recently established and growing pattern of use at the Grant Center” and that the center “serves a diverse community that includes a large African-American population relative to the rest of Buncombe County.” According to Quinn, nearly a quarter of the early votes cast at the Grant Center in 2016 — 1,215 — were cast by black voters. The next-highest black voter turnout was the West Asheville Library, where 582 of 8,315 voters, only 7 percent, were African-American.
In an Aug. 5 hearing before the state board, Quinn said he shared his colleagues’ fiscal concerns but was more concerned about accessibility and meeting the public’s needs. Offering both the Valley Street and Grant Center sites, he said, was “complementary, serving distinctly different populations.” He said both plans represented a significant reduction in the total number of locations and hours offered in Buncombe in previous years. Bolstered by a letter from Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman, which indicated the budgetary problem could be remedied, Quinn argued that 11 sites could and should be staffed.
“I am troubled,” he said, “by the recommendation that we not use in November the only early voting site we used in May that’s in a minority neighborhood. We used eight sites in May, and now the only one of those we won’t use is the only one that’s close to the BOE office and the only one that’s in a minority neighborhood? That would not be sound planning.”
In the end, the state board agreed with Quinn in a 5-4 decision.
The decision went his way, Quinn says, because of the work he put in. “I wanted it more. I was better prepared, submitted a stronger case and provided a stronger presentation than did my colleagues.”