By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — North Carolina voters will have more opportunities than ever to cast a ballot in this year’s general election when early voting begins late next week. But do more days and hours — including Sunday voting in 21 counties — mean better turnout and more confidence in the electoral process? Not really.
In fact, having workers run elections for nearly three weeks straight without a day off may increase the chances of errors in addition to adding unnecessary financial and staffing burdens to county elections offices, according to Charles Winfree, a Greensboro attorney and 11-year veteran of the State Board of Elections.
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said the Lord’s Day is not made for voting.
“I suggest to you that to secure constitutional government we need that pause from our normal activities of life to find that quiet place of rest and recovery. One day out of seven for a respite and acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty over us makes us better citizens,” he said. “It is a Sunday-cultivated character that makes an electorate fit to guard and preserve our liberties.”
“Let me make our position perfectly clear. We urge every eligible voter to cast a ballot. We’d love to see 100 percent turnout. This is not about encouraging some to vote and others to stay home,” Dr. Creech added. “But we don’t believe that Sunday voting is the key to getting people to the polls. Not only should Sunday be set apart by biblical command, but to help ensure accuracy and that proper procedures are followed. Poll workers need a break – they need a rest.”
First allowed in 2000 in the Tar Heel state when laws were changed so that voters were no longer required to give an excuse for voting early, voting on Sunday did not immediately catch on. Johnnie McLean, deputy director of the State Board of Elections, said only a couple of counties offered Sunday voting in 2002. A handful of locations added Sunday polling hours in 2004, and by the general election of 2008 a dozen counties had opened One-Stop Early Voting centers on at least one Sunday. According to Democracy North Carolina, some 37,000 votes were cast that year on the first day of the week.
In a 2009 memo, the group’s executive director, Bob Hall, touted Sunday as having the highest votes per hour of any early voting day, especially in urban areas.
“Sites are generally only open three or four hours in the afternoon, but they have intensive use in that brief period,” Hall wrote.
But does that “intensive use” lead to more voter participation overall, making it truly beneficial?
Winfree doesn’t think so. According to an analysis he presented last month, even with a number of changes aimed at adding more voting opportunities, turnout has not significantly increased. In fact, in 2010 the number of voters who went to the polls was under 45 percent of those registered as compared to more than 60 percent in 1990. In 2006, it dipped below 40 percent. Of course presidential election year turnout has been higher, climbing to roughly 70 percent in 2008, about the same as it was in 1984.
“In presidential years, voter turnout from 2000 to 2008 has increased statewide, but the turnout as a percentage of registered voters was higher in 1992 than in any of the next three presidential races,” Winfree pointed out. “What turns out voters is a candidate that they are really excited about or an issue that they are really concerned about.”
The high point for turnout in non-presidential years was 1990, when 62 percent of voters came out to have their say in the highly contested Senate race between Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt. As primary voting goes, turnout was just under 35 percent last May with the Marriage Amendment on the ballot, whereas primaries in 2000 and 2004 brought in just 18 and 16 percent of voters respectively.
“The issue of convenience is not a driving force. Voter apathy is the bigger issue,” Winfree contends. “We have to have a balance between convenience to voters and the burden on the election staff and volunteers, especially now since a lot of the precinct workers are getting on up in years.”
Having previously served on the Board of Elections in Guilford County, Winfree said he sympathizes with local elections staff that basically have to treat each day of early voting like a new election.
“They have to have everything ready to open the polls, check to make sure everything is operating properly and then conduct the election. Then that night, they have to go through all the processes to close everything down and get ready for the next day,” he said, noting the plethora of paperwork involved with making sure that voters names are crossed off as they cast ballots and newly eligible voters are added to the proper lists. “Essentially, they have to do everything for a new election every day for two and half weeks, which takes a toll on staff and poll workers, who are volunteers.”
“My feeling is that they should have one day when they are not under that stress, and if voting is happening seven days a week, they don’t have that one day off,” he added.
Although McLean said most of those who oppose Sunday voting do so on religious grounds, she admitted that cost is also a concern in some counties.
“It may be more expensive in that they have to have additional personnel working,” McLean said, adding that there is usually a lot of excitement prior to Sunday voting with rumors that one group or another may be bringing bus loads of people to one location to vote.
“Most often it doesn’t work out that way, but if there is a plan to do so, it is good if the county board of elections is made aware so they can be prepared to have enough workers there to process the voters,” she said.
Dr. Creech said while churches should be doing all they can to encourage congregants to vote, the overall turnout is not increasing if the votes are just being shifted from a weekday to a Sunday.
“Flooding the polls with a busload of people on a day when election staff is likely to be shorthanded is asking for trouble,” he said. “I believe that it’s important to get people to the polls to vote, but we also believe that it is more important to preserve the greater purpose behind the Lord’s Day.”
He cited the Pilgrims’ adherence to the Sabbath even as they landed at Plymouth Rock and the fact that some 225 years later, in 1845, the United States Congress chose a Tuesday for all national elections so that voters would not have to vote or travel on Sunday.
“There are already numerous and untold activities taking place on Sundays that perpetuate an environment that undermines the invaluable influence of the Christian religion in the structure of the nation, in the welfare of the people, in the orderliness of society and the idealism of life,” he said. “We cannot break God’s commandments without being broken by them. When Congress in 1845 established Tuesday the day for elections so that people would not have to vote or travel on that blessed day, they didn’t feel that was a violation of the separation of church and state and neither should we.”
The well-known “souls to the polls” push prevalent in many African-American churches has become synonymous with Sunday voting, leading some to claim that any opposition to casting a ballot on the Lord’s day is voter suppression.
“To call this voter suppression really trivializes poll taxes and other laws that were truly onerous and really did keep people from voting,” Winfree said. “Not allowing absolutely every voter convenience is not the same as voter suppression.”
Dr. Creech echoed many of Winfree’s concerns and said he first became concerned when he learned the State Board of Elections earlier this year was forcing Sunday voting in counties where early voting schedules that did not include it had already been approved by a majority of the local board. Even so, when hearing appeals this summer from boards where early voting plans were not unanimous, the State BOE rubber-stamped Sunday voting in virtually every case.
“Some plans had bipartisan support at the county level, but if one member appealed, the majority on the state board then sided with that member,” Winfree said.
“The bottom line is that voting is a wonderful privilege that we should exercise to the fullest, and this fall we in North Carolina are given plenty of opportunities between Oct. 18 and Nov. 6 to go to the polls. And if we can’t make it on any of the days offered, we can request a mail-in ballot,” said Dr. Creech. “It isn’t about whether not having Sunday voting in all precincts is restricting the actions of those who call for Sunday voting, but whether we will protect and promote the greater benefits accrued from preserving our liberties by honoring the Lord’s Day. North Carolina does not need Sunday voting.”
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