Elections board wants to maintain early-voting sites in Forsyth

Forsyth County Board of Elections members Jonathan Dills (center) and Linda Sutton voted to send new voter registration cards to voters in Precinct 504, whose polling location is being moved.

The Democratic chair of the Forsyth County Board of Elections says she will push to maintain the same number of early-voting sites for the upcoming presidential election as in the watershed election year of 2008.

“As long as we can match 2008, whether people are coming out for or against Obama, either way it’s going to be a heavy turnout,” Chair Linda Sutton said after a meeting of the local board yesterday. “I want everybody to have an opportunity to vote and to have as many sites as we did in 2008.”

She added that some voters are highly motivated to turn out to vote against Obama, while the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte could boost turnout among Democrats.  

The Forsyth County Board of Elections operated 14 early-voting sites over a period of two weeks during the run-up to Election Day in 2008. A total of 81,062 people participated in early voting in that election. Altogether, 167,871 registered voters in Forsyth County voted in the 2008 general election, resulting in a turnout of 75.6 percent. 

Elections Director Rob Coffman told Sutton and Republican board member Jonathan Dills that he will bring the board a recommendation for the number and location of early-voting sites, along with the days and hours of operation. Dills, who is the only Republican on the three-member board, said he expected to be out-voted by his Democratic colleagues. Michael Flatow, the second Democrat on the board, was absent from the meeting because of a death in the family. 

It remains unclear how many early-voting sites the county can afford to operate. Coffman said in an interview before the meeting that unlike 2008, the Republican-controlled NC General Assembly did not allocate state funding this year to obtain a federal matching grant available under the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA. As a consequence, this year there is no federal or state funding available to pay for additional voting sites. Another consequence of the General Assembly’s inaction, Coffman said, is that the county will have to pick up the tab for maintaining and licensing voting machines this year at a cost of $67,000 or $68,000. 

“We’re going to have to self-fund [early-voting sites],” Coffman said. “We have to look at our dollars and see what we can do. There are some creative things we can do. We could have same number of locations but maybe reduce the hours. Our main expense is staff. The board does have some flexibility.” 

In addition to chairing the Forsyth County Board of Elections, Sutton is a field organizer for Democracy North Carolina, a statewide election group that has advocated for early voting, often putting itself at odds with Republican lawmakers intent on scaling back opportunities to vote. Democracy North Carolina recently asked supporters to contact lawmakers to urge them to release the HAVA funds. 

Coffman and the two board members agreed that the board should select sites that were popular during early voting in 2008. Coffman cited Polo Park Recreation Center in Winston-Salem. Dills mentioned Kernersville Senior Center and Clemmons Library. 

In other action, Sutton and Dills approved 2008 absentee ballots for the July 17 runoff election and disapproved three ballots that were not signed or completed. Sutton expressed surprise at how many absentee ballots were received. 

Coffman attributed the relatively high number of absentee ballots to people who voted absentee in the first primary election checking off a request for absentee ballots in a second election. He said his office fielded phone calls from voters who were confused about why they had received the second absentee ballot who apparently didn’t remember that they had made the request through the check-off. 

Sutton lamented that many voters are not aware that a second runoff election will be held on July 17. The board members and the director discussed various methods of publicizing the election, but took no official action. 

A runoff is held when no candidate in the primary receives more than 40 percent of the vote and the candidate receiving the second highest numbers of votes requests a second election. 

Voters who selected a Republican ballot in the primary will have the opportunity to vote for Dan Forest or Tony Gurley for lieutenant governor, Richard Morgan or Mike Causey for NC commissioner of insurance, Kenn Gardner or Richard Alexander for NC secretary of state, and John Tedesco or Richard Alexander for NC superintendent of public instruction. Those who selected the Democratic ballot will be able to vote in only one run-off: a contest between Marlowe Foster and John C. Brooks for NC commissioner of labor. 

Coffman told the two board members that the polling site for Precinct 504 will be moved because of the closure of Hill Middle School. The new voting site will be the Sprague Street Recreation Center (map). Coffman said the board would mail out notifications to all voters in the precinct, who number about a thousand. Sutton and Dills also voted to send new voter registration cards to the voters. 

Dills said that if the board did not send out new cards, “they would always have that card reminding them of the wrong location.” 

Coffman and Dills agreed that the cost of printing and mailing the cards would likely be $600 or $700. Coffman said he thought he could find money in the new 2012-2013 budget to cover the expense.

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