Six Republicans (Faircloth, Guice, Jordan, Lewis, McGrady and Torbett) joined a unified Democratic caucus in voting against the measure.
The final vote came after the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Bert Jones (Una-Rockingham), offered an amendment intended to address concerns raised by critics of the proposed shorter voting period. That amendment was approved 107-10 and would allow county boards of elections to shift polling-place schedules to accommodate voters and would extend voting hours on the final Saturday before Election Day.
Jones said the purpose of his bill was to save taxpayer dollars by having early voting sites open one fewer week. He said the reduction in the early voting period would also reduce the cost of campaigning for candidates.
“All we’re doing is saying that instead of starting 19 days before the election, we’re going to start 12 days before the election,” Jones said. “And by the way, we’re going to give you extra evening hours every day where you can go and vote, and we’re going to give you an extra Saturday, and we’re going to extend those Saturday voting hours.”
Rep. Bill Owens (D-Pasquotank) said that any savings gained by reducing the first week of early voting would be lost by the need to open more polling sites in response to increased turnout in the remaining two weeks of that period.
“All we’re doing is restricting the length of time and convenience to the voter,” Owens said. “This is a candidate convenience bill, this is not good for the voters.”
Rep. John Blust (R-Guilford) said he had felt mixed emotions about the bill, but with the amendment he supported the measure.
“I’ll tell you what happened with early voting, it was early voting to make it convenient for people who didn’t work and not to help it to be convenient for working people,” Blust said. “This bill now as comprised will make it easier for working people to go early vote. ”
Rep. Mickey Michaux (D-Durham) criticized the bill as having a disproportionate impact on African-Americans. Michaux said that 16 percent of black voters cast a ballot during the first week of North Carolina’s early voting in the 2008 general election, compared to 9 percent of white voters who went to the polls in that same period.
“The only thing I can say is this is a bad bill,” Michaux said. “It really suppresses the vote.”
A poll released Wednesday by Public Policy Polling finds that 44 percent of North Carolina voters oppose a one-week reduction to early voting, with 35 percent in favor. The survey shows that 45 percent of Republican voters support cutting back on early voting, with 37 percent opposed. Meanwhile, 49 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of unaffiliated voters oppose such a move.
Approximately 600,000 North Carolina voters cast a ballot during the first week of early voting in the 2008 general election, according to data from the State Board of Elections.
House Bill 658 now goes to the N.C. Senate for consideration.
Full audio of Wednesday’s debate on reducing early voting can be heard with the player below, provided by VoterRadio.com: