August 23, 2012On Monday, August 13, the Democratically controlled Guilford County Board of Elections adopted an early voting plan for the 2012 election; however, it did so over the strong objections of the board's lone Republican member.
At the afternoon meeting in the Board of Elections offices on the first floor of the Old Guilford County Court House, the elections board adopted a plan that answered the often politically charged questions of where to put early voting sites, as well as the dates and times that voting would be allowed.
The structure of early voting is considered by many to be important because the locations can have an influence on early voter demographics. For instance, placing more early voting sites in predominately conservative areas could benefit Republican candidates and vice versa.
The plan adopted calls for 22 early voting sites spread across Guilford County for voting in the 2012 general election, with voting to begin on Thursday, Oct. 18 and end on Saturday, Nov. 3.
The Guilford County Board of Elections has one Republican member, Kathryn Lindley, and two Democratic members – Chairman T.J. Warren and Dot Kearns, a former member of the Guilford County Board of Education and former chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
The elections board is required to approve early voting sites and submit its early voting plan to state officials, and, at the August 13 meeting, the board adopted a plan shortly after Lindley voiced her objections.
The new plan is a revised version of an earlier plan. It had been changed to address some of Lindley's concerns. However the Republican board member still didn't like the new revised plan one bit.
"It stinks just as much as the other one did," she said.
It was clear from the start of the meeting that Democrats Kearns and Warren supported the early voting proposal.
Lindley didn't go into the details about her concerns – she said she had expressed them many times to both election staff and her fellow Board of Elections members.
After the meeting, Lindley said she was opposed to putting early voting sites on the campuses of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) and North Carolina A&T State University (A&T), and she especially objected to holding voting at those sites for the two weeks leading up to the election.
The conversation at the meeting was couched in terms of what would best serve the voters of Guilford County. However, a skeptic looking on might have suggested that the board's Democratic members wanted to have early voting sites placed in liberal areas of the county, and the Republican wanted the opposite – and therefore the Democrats wanted the early voting sites on the two college campuses, expected to be bastions of liberal support.
After the meeting, Lindley said her concerns didn't have to do with political advantage or disadvantage, but, instead, with the fact that money could be saved by limiting early voting and her belief that these two sites weren't needed.
"It's a waste of money; these areas were lightly voted," she said of the two college campuses. "These sites are not convenient to most people."
Lindley added that, if the board wanted to use these sites anyway, the sites should only be open for the last week of the early voting period since the majority of early voting takes place at that time.
She also said that having a site at UNCG was a break from past practice.
"We've never had a site at UNCG," she said.
Lindley added that, if the board had taken her suggestions and limited early voting times and locations, it could have saved taxpayers about $50,000. "We could have saved a ton of money," she said.
Lindley also said the expenditures were especially unnecessary given that people who want to vote early have shown a willingness to drive a good distance to do so.
"People who want to vote early will find a place to vote early," she said.
Guilford County Board of Elections Director George Gilbert said after the meeting that he agreed that people who are going to vote early tend to do so regardless of the placement of the early voting stations.
Gilbert also said that, when his office puts a site on a college campus or a similar institution, it tries to do so in a building that's very accessible to voters who don't work for or live at the institution.
He said his office tracks who votes where, and he added that, in 2008, the A&T site drew a lot of early voters who weren't connected to that college.
Among the 22 sites the county will use for early voting this year are the Old Guilford County Court House in downtown Greensboro, the Bur-Mil Clubhouse, the Jamestown Town Hall and Oak Ridge Town Hall – as well as Oak Hollow Mall and several recreation centers across the county.
Though Lindley had strong objections to the early voting plan adopted at the August 13 meeting, in the end, for pragmatic reasons, she voted along with the board's two Democrats in favor of adopting that plan.
"I don't agree with it, but I will vote for it," she told the board immediately before the vote.
She said she was only voting for it because Gilbert and her fellow board members had requested that it pass unanimously.
If the elections board had adopted an early voting plan on anything other than a unanimous vote, the State Board of Elections could have come in and made changes. That would have meant that the county's early voting process was uncertain and it would have hampered staff's attempts to prepare for early voting.
When the plan passed at the meeting on a 3-to-0 vote, Gilbert assured Lindley that her objections would be noted in the minutes.
Guilford County began offering the early voting option in 2000, and Gilbert said the site selection and the voting hours for early voting are determined largely by looking at what has and hasn't worked well in the past.
He said early voting has become more important in the county since the practice began. In 2000, the county had five early voting sites; in 2008 there were 19, and this year there will be 22.
Gilbert said county voters now rely heavily on early voting. He said that, in the May primary, 60 percent of voters used early voting and 7 percent voted by mail, which means a total of 67 percent cast votes before the May 8 primary.
According to Gilbert, largely because of all that early voting, only 89,000 showed up to vote on Tuesday, May 8.
According to Gilbert, the 2008 election cost the county about $800,000. He said that roughly $350,000 of that cost was provided for early voting.
Gilbert said that a bare bones runoff, such as the one in July, costs the county about $150,000.