Board rethinks Sunday voting
The Charlotte Observer October 21, 2004

Mecklenburg County commissioners may reverse a controversial attempt to stop Sunday voting that prompted outrage from Democrats and accusations of voter suppression on Wednesday.

Commissioners Chairman Tom Cox has called a special meeting for Friday afternoon to reconsider a party-line vote from Tuesday night's meeting. Led by Republicans, the commissioners voted 5-3 not to accept a state grant for early voting because local elections officials planned to use part of the money for voting this Sunday.

Voting will happen Sunday as scheduled at four libraries and the Board of Elections. Elections director Michael Dickerson said his office will appropriate other funds until the commissioners make a final decision.

Tuesday's action has sparked a partisan, racially charged debate and interrupted the plans of many groups -- including several black churches -- for a "Souls to the Polls" effort after services on Sunday.

The commissioners' vote will backfire, said Danielle Obiorah, chair of the Black Political Caucus.

"I think it's going to mobilize people. People are upset. People are angry," she said. "It essentially says that the only way we can win is if we prevent people from voting. And in a democracy, we want people to vote."

After the close 2000 election, both parties are on edge nationally, watching for any change in the electoral process that could give either side an advantage.

What commissioners discussed Tuesday was a $55,992 grant from the state elections office.

The Republican majority argued that in September, the Democratic-controlled local and state elections boards improperly added a four-hour window for voting this Sunday afternoon.

Arguing that one partisan turn deserves another, some Republican commissioners said they would spend the money -- only if Sunday voting were canceled.

"I can play as tough and as hardball as any Democrat any place in the United States," Republican commissioner Bill James said Wednesday. "And I can shove it right back in their face the same way they're trying to shove it down the throats of the public."

Outraged Democrats alleged Wednesday that Republicans were simply trying to limit some voters' access to ballots.

"It is a terrible, terrible insult to democracy and to the voters of Mecklenburg County to say that we are not going to do everything we can do to make voting as convenient as possible," U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., of Charlotte, said at a news conference.

Cox, a Republican, said he wanted to make sure the county's actions were legal, so the debate Friday may turn on a close reading of the state statutes that govern early voting and the county's responsibility to pay for it.

The law requires that county elections boards (which currently have two Democrats and one Republican in all counties) must make unanimous decisions about certain early-voting procedures. The state board, which also has a Democratic majority, can make the final call if there is a split locally.

Local elections officials adopted a unanimous plan early this year, and that's the one that should have remained in place, said Republican commissioner Ruth Samuelson.

But in September, the local board split on the Sunday plan, which would cost about $5,000.

Samuelson said she did not know how she would vote at Friday's special meeting.

"It's just frustrating to me, because on my part it was clearly never meant to be a racist vote, and people who know me would say that is the farthest thing from my mind," she said. "It was also not meant to create a firestorm. I just didn't want to have my hand rubber-stamping something that was not right."

State law requires the county commissioners to pay for early voting, but Republicans argued that they could force the elections office to find the money elsewhere in its $2.9 million budget, instead of using the state grant.

Don Wright, general counsel to the State Board of Elections, said local and state elections officials followed state law.

Tuesday's decision not to accept the grant could have future ramifications for the county, said state Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg.

"The next time they come whining to us for money," he said, "I'll remember that."

Voter-turnout advocates say early voting and Sunday voting make it easier for people with busy schedules to cast ballots.

Mary Klenz, state co-president of the League of Women Voters, said she had trouble understanding the commissioners' decision.

"I can't imagine elected officials trying to stop people from voting," she said. "What could they be thinking of?"

Cox said he has grown to abhor the political influence in the democratic process, from redistricting to voting procedures.

Cox added he does not know what will happen Friday. Already, James has said he cannot attend the meeting because he has child-care responsibilities. Republican Vice Chairman Dan Ramirez is trying to reschedule an out-of-town appointment. Democrat Parks Helms, who was absent Tuesday, is back in town.

"As the story unfolds," Cox said, "I'm not sure where it's going to go."

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