The Cleveland County Board of Elections has made known that, at its regular July 8 meeting, the Board expects to take final action initiating a process to merge five existing Shelby precincts into just two. If approved and implemented, the Board’s proposed merger plan would change the voting places of more than 10,000 [corrected number*] registered voters.
The Cleveland County Democratic Party has provided formal objection to the Board’s taking action now and has asked the Board to defer until after the 2016 presidential election any consideration of precinct boundary changes.The following summarizes our written comments provided the Board:
Too much about elections and voting is unknown and uncertain to make any decision in mid-2014 to upend the county’s existing precinct configuration, with any assurance a new plan can anticipate citizens’ future needs. And particularly their needs in a large 2016 presidential-year general election conducted under new N. C. voter law requirements including photo ID for the first time
The 2016 general election will be unlike those of 2008 and 2012 in significant respects. Huge unknowns relating to the conduct of elections and voter experience won’t be resolved until the 2016 election is actually held.
Past election experience alone can’t be relied on as indicator of 2016 needs. For example, right now, it can’t be projected on the basis of past experience how long it will take an average voter to cast a ballot in 2016--when both voter and precinct worker will be newly dealing with photo ID and voters have lost the option of quick straight-ticket voting. But a good estimate of the average time it takes to vote is essential to elections managers planning how to set up polling places and deploy staffing and equipment. Moreover, it can’t be forecast with assurance now that early voting will continue to increase, thereby taking pressure off election-day polling places and allowing elections boards to get by with fewer of them. For that matter, there’s no assurance that the N. C. Legislature will not further constrict early voting availability before 2016’s general election.
Despite these unknowns, N. C. elections boards will have no choice but to guess at how to adequately prepare, staff, and equip early-voting and election-day polling sites for 2016’s general election. They must risk being seriously wrong in their assumptions about how many will vote, where and when they will vote, and how long it takes them to vote. They must take the risk knowing the result of wrong guesses may be an election snarled up with unanticipated effects such as street gridlock around polling places, congestion at entrances, long waits to obtain a ballot, and voters leaving in frustration--or, at worst, disenfranchised because site problems made it impossible to cast the vote they intended.
The Cleveland County Board of Elections does have a choice in whether and when to impose precinct changes raising an additional, different risk of 2016 election problems. A requirement that voters learn of and go to different voting sites by itself presents a level of complexity and potential confusion affecting decisions to vote and the ability to do so. In our judgment, the Board’s proposed merger implementation timeline (although done in two phases) does not provide sufficient time or practice to ensure that all voters who expect to vote in 2016 know their precinct and polling place has changed. It’s reasonable to assume some won’t be aware until they go to vote in 2016 and find their accustomed voting place no longer there.
There’s no reason compelling to voters and taxpayers to compound the risk of serious 2016 general election problems. Compounded risk will be the case if Board action now creates a 2016 situation in which voters and elections workers must deal simultaneously with both the problems typically involved in changing voting places and new voter law requirements such as photo ID. Voters and election workers already will be forced by the voter law to follow voting processes different from those of past elections. Adding precinct change complexities to that would simply increase their challenge, and unnecessarily.
It’s not likely that any modest cost savings achievable by merging precincts before the 2016 election will affect the property tax rate, by which many citizens gauge their comfort level with the overall county budget. The Board majority says the cost saving achievable is a primary justification for shrinking the number of precinct voting places. However, even if the Board believes cost saving should have priority in configuring where voters cast ballots, cost saving is not a compelling reason to merge precincts now, Total projected savings from fully implemented mergers do not appear realizable until after the 2016 election, given the Board’s proposed phased-in merger implementation timetable and offsetting new costs involved in implementation. If the potential for permanent cost saving is valid and that remains a paramount objective, that same potential will remain after the 2016 election.
Finding a new voting site for Shelby 6 precinct does not require that Shelby 7 be merged with it now. We understand a different voting site must be found now for Shelby 6 precinct because its existing site will no longer be available for elections. Although the Board may believe it expeditious to merge Shelby 6 and Shelby 7 now and identify one voting site for both, there is no requirement these two precincts be merged now. And after the 2016 general election, the Board will have more solid knowledge on which to base decisions about future requirements.
Although there appear to be no compelling reasons to merge precincts now, there are compelling reasons to defer consideration of any permanent precinct changes until after the 2016 general election. Chief among these advantages:the Board will have more concrete evidence and information, not simply best guesses made now, for decisions about the configuration of precincts best serving Cleveland County voters for the future. Voters will be spared the burden of dealing with two major changes in the same big election. Moreover, the overall political climate should be more settled after the 2016 general election and less likely to stir conjecture about motives behind precinct changes,
We encourage Cleveland County citizens to consider our points and weigh what’s lost or gained by making a decision now or deferring consideration, then make opinions known to the Cleveland County Board of Elections in advance of its meeting July 8.
-- Cleveland County Democratic Party
*Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly said voting places would change for 12,000 voters. That many registered voters do live in the five precincts concerned. However, 1,777 of them live in Shelby 3 precinct, As the BOE website llisting indicates, their existing voting place is Shelby City Park. Their voting place would not change if (as proposed) Shelby City Park is the voting place for merged Shelby 1, 2, and 3 precincts. Also, please do take particular note, as reported in tour news article, the Elections Board report that the existing Shelby 6 precinct voting place must necessarily be relocated before the November 2014 election. Shelby 6 has approximately 3,000 voters.