RALEIGH — North Carolina Republican lawmakers are again looking at changing the rules on the state's extremely popular early in-person voting, which has prompted legal action in the past.
The full House gave initial approval Thursday to legislation to change the 17-day early voting schedule and require more consistent voting times statewide. Another House vote was anticipated Friday, and the Senate would still have to act. GOP legislative leaders are trying to clear the decks on statewide bills as time in this year's session dwindles.
The proposal would end the early voting period on the Friday evening before a primary or Election Day, instead of on early Saturday afternoon, as currently required. To keep early voting at 17 days, the period would begin one day earlier.
For example, this year's early voting period for the fall elections would run from Oct. 17 to Nov. 2, instead of Oct. 18 to Nov. 3.
Counties also would have to open all of their early voting sites from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and be required to use uniform weekend hours if election officials agree to open those sites on Saturdays or Sundays within the period. Right now, counties can mix and match hours and site openings, deciding where their money can best be used.
Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican shepherding the bill, said completing the early in-person voting on a Friday night would give local election officials more time to prepare for staffing thousands of precincts statewide on Tuesday. Precinct poll books must be updated to remove registered voters who have already cast ballots.
The measure provides more "consistent access to the polls," Lewis told the House Rules Committee he leads. The panel debated the measure and voted on it earlier Thursday. "I believe it is more uniform to end the Friday before the election date." The full House gave preliminary approval by a 67-36 vote.
Early voting is a hot topic in North Carolina, where the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a wide-ranging election law in 2013 that in part required photo identification to vote and reduced the number of early voting days from 17 to 10. Federal judges struck down these and other provisions in 2016, saying the law was intended to make it harder for black residents to vote. Republicans disagreed.
The proposed changes worried voting rights groups and at least one county election board chairman. They said it would be difficult to staff early voting sites 12 hours a day on 13 consecutive weekdays, and could make county elections boards think twice before agreeing to open more sites overall and to open them on weekends.
"Normally we have a good return on a seven- or eight-hour days," said Greg Flynn, Wake County's elections chairman. Lewis said he hadn't spoken to the state elections board about its view on the bill.
The Saturday before the election has been a popular date for voting, often attracting people who can't get off work to vote or who procrastinate. About 193,000 ballots were cast on the Saturday before Election Day in November 2016 and 103,000 on the Saturday before Election Day in November 2014, according to state elections data.
"That's a significant population," said Isela Gutiérrez, research director of Democracy North Carolina. She said black residents voted on the final Saturday in 2016 at a greater percentage compared with the percentage of all registered voters.
"I don't think the intent is to have a disproportionate impact on any kind of voter, so I would caution the lawmakers about thinking about eliminating that last Saturday," Gutiérrez said, adding that the measure would likely reduce options for voters.
GOP proponents of the bill said the measure would actually increase the total number of early voting hours.