WNC sees big turnout despite statewide decrease in early voting sites

SHOWING UP: Despite intermittent rain showers, business was brisk at the early voting site at the West Asheville Library on Haywood Road on Nov. 2, the next-to-last day of early voting. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Despite initial concern that a state law passed in June might stifle early voting numbers, counties in Western North Carolina have seen turnout more consistent with a presidential election than a midterm.

“The doomsday scenario that some people predicted hasn’t come true,” said Chris Cooper, head of the political science department at Western Carolina University, on Oct. 22.

The Buncombe County Board of Election Services reported following the close of the early voting period on Nov. 3 that 77,805 people voted early in Buncombe County in 2018. According to numbers provided by Cooper, that total exceeds the early voting totals in 2014, 45,433, and 2010, 36,805.

The county’s election services office sent out 4,100 absentee ballots this election, up from 3,300 during the 2014 midterm. Those ballots were due back at the Buncombe County board by 5 p.m. on Election Day.

By the time all the numbers have been entered from the 2018 election, Buncombe County’s total registered voters will reach 200,000. The county had 185,541 total registered voters on July 17, 2014, according to figures compiled by the local election services office.

Statewide turnout also far exceeded that of the 2014 midterms. The state Board of Elections announced that more than 2 million people had voted early during the 2018 election, a 73 percent increase compared with 2014’s early voting period. 

The uptick occurred despite a statewide decrease in early voting sites. According to numbers provided by the state Board of Elections, officials projected in late September that the number of midterm early voting sites in the state would decrease about 17 percent this year — from a total of 368 in 2014 to 304 in 2018. At the same time, officials expected the total number of early voting hours would almost double — jumping from 25,887 to about 49,696.

In June, the General Assembly passed a law requiring counties to keep uniform hours for early voting. On weekdays, one-stop sites must be open 7 a.m.-7 p.m., and if a county decides to open an early voting site on the weekend, all early voting sites must be open for the same amount of time.

While the increase in turnout seems counterintuitive in light of the decrease in total sites, Cooper said, but he believes the increase relates to the many factors at play. For one, people seem more engaged.

“I think people realized after 2016 that politics matter,” Cooper said. “And for some people, it’s that they’re happy with the outcome, and for other folks, it’s that they’re not happy. But either way, I think there’s a recognition from both sides that elections matter and politics matter.”

Parties have also become more adept at mobilizing and communicating with voters, Cooper said, and the sheer number of constitutional amendments on the ballot this year — six — has likely had a catalyzing impact on turnout as well.

“We’ve never had six constitutional amendments on the ballot since we passed the new constitution in 1971,” Cooper said.

Haywood County Election Director Robert Inman said his county election office has been able to offer more hours of service because of the new law. Haywood County hasn’t changed the number of sites it offers this year, but Inman said the increased hours, and a need for more poll workers because of high turnout, could mean a higher cost.

“It is far closer to a presidential year than our average recent-memory midterm,” he said on Oct. 23, noting that it’s difficult to compare different elections. “Every election is unique to itself,” he said, “and it’s dependent on lots of variables.”

A set of considerations must go into planning, Inman said, and calculations by boards of election have to take into account laws passed by the General Assembly in the months leading up to an election. That uncertainty can make it difficult to lay concrete plans, Inman said.

With the exception of a lull on Oct. 31, which he speculated could have had something to do with Halloween, Inman said on Nov. 2 that there had been sustained high turnout throughout the early voting period.

In Buncombe County, the Department of Election Services originally budgeted for 15 early voting sites but dropped the number to 11 after the implementation of the new law. The decrease in early voting sites has led to a corresponding drop in the number of early voting workers that the county has at the polls — 130 in 2018 compared to 160 in 2014.

As in other counties, turnout in Buncombe has been strong, according to Election Services Director Trena Parker Velez.

In 2012, a presidential election year, Buncombe County saw 23,196 votes cast within the first 42 hours of early voting, she says. This year, local voters cast 21,391 votes within the first 46 hours.

“We always budget for a fairly robust early voting program,” Velez said on Oct. 23. “Buncombe is used to voting early, so we’re ready to provide that.” During the early voting period, she said she didn’t think the new law would affect turnout in her county, but she sees how it could have an impact on counties with more limited resources than Buncombe.

Kim Welborn, elections director for McDowell County, said the cost of organizing early voting comes predominantly from paying employees to staff the voting sites. Welborn said her department tries to have six to eight employees at a site at any given time.

Typically, McDowell has offered early voting during all three Saturdays. According to Welborn, the McDowell board likely chose to operate just one Saturday this year in response to the expanded 12-hour days required by the new law. “It’s like having 18 full days of election day,” she said.

McDowell also offered fewer early voting sites this year — two — compared with the three it operated in 2014. But that didn’t stop people from voting. Welborn said on Oct. 24 the county was seeing nearly twice the number of voters it would expect during a midterm election.

On Nov. 2, with one day of early voting left to go, Welborn said that 6,707 votes had been cast in McDowell County during the early voting period, higher than the total for the entire early voting period in 2014. Other numbers also were up: As of Nov. 2, the county had also issued 247 absentee ballots and registered 110 new voters, more than the corresponding numbers in 2014, Welborn said.

Henderson County had five sites in 2014, said Director of Elections Beverly Cunningham, which was possible because the county was allowed to operate on shortened hours. The 12-hour state mandate was handed down late in the summer, after the board had already finalized its budget in February.

“We, therefore, opened our warehouse as a supersite with triple the check-in stations and double the voting stations and are able to handle many voters in an extremely fast operation,” Cunningham wrote in an email on Oct. 24.

Jon Yarbrough, 51, lives in Henderson County but works for a law firm in South Asheville. It’s a half-hour drive from his office in South Asheville to the county’s early voting site in Hendersonville. “I just happened to have a meeting in Hendersonville, and I waited and planned to go vote today because of the fact that I’m having to drive out of the way to my one location to vote early,” he said on Nov. 2.

Parking took longer than voting, Yarbrough said. “I sat in my car probably 15 minutes waiting for someone to pull out … so that I could find a place to park.”

Cunningham said the county had three to four attendants assisting voters with parking at the facility.

She said officials expected to exceed 2014’s turnout well before early voting ended on Nov. 3, but she hopes the state legislature will change the law before the 2020 election to allow local boards to set their own hours of operation again.

Welborn said she doesn’t have a theory for why turnout has trended higher this year. “I want to think that people are just paying attention and know the importance of voting and getting out and casting their vote,” she said.

Find the complete Mountain Xpress guide to the election and candidates here.

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About David Floyd
David Floyd is the Buncombe County reporter for the Mountain Xpress. He previously worked as a general-assignment reporter for the Johnson City Press. Email him at dfloyd@mountainx.com.

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