The Cleveland County Board of Elections held public hearings June 23 and 24 on its proposal to merge some Shelby voting precincts, expecting to take final action at its regular July 8 meeting to initiate the merger process.
The Board is proposing to merge the Shelby 6 and 7 election precincts into one with Holly Oak Park as voting place for its residents, effective before this year’s general election in November, and to merge the Shelby 1, 2, and 3 precincts into one with Shelby City Park as its voting place, effective for the 2015 general election,
The proposed mergers would change the voting places of more than 10,000 registered voters in Shelby [earlier error in number corrected, see note]. The mergers would create two precincts far larger (as measured in number of registered voters) than any other in Cleveland County. The largest merged precinct would encompass more than seven times the number of registered voters in the county’s smallest precinct and more than two times the average number in other existing precincts not merged. (See size comparison chart. This chart also reflects two previous precinct mergers the Elections Board made effective for 2014. One of these recent mergers also involved Shelby precincts, consolidating two into one with nearly 4,500 registered voters combined.
In addition to those attending the hearings to learn more, give individual opinion, or ask questions, two local organizations presented their formal positions on the proposed mergers in written and oral comment.
The Cleveland County NAACP chapter lodged objection to the precinct mergers being done at all, on grounds their effects such as resulting long waiting lines and uncertainty where to vote would disenfranchise by discouraging or impeding registered voters' casting ballots.
As presented by CCDP Chair Robin Smith, the position of the Cleveland County Democratic Party is that the Elections Board should defer until after the 2016 presidential-year general election any consideration of precinct boundary changes.
In its comments, the local Democratic Party says that too much relating to elections and voters will remain unknown until the 2016 general election is actually held.
Further, the party says the Board’s proposed timeline does not allow sufficient time or practice for all affected voters to become aware their voting place has changed before that election. The 2015 fall election for municipal, school and water board candidates, given the typical low turnout, will be nothing like what may be the largest-ever presidential-year election in 2016.
Democrats say the experience of the 2016 general election, however, will provide actual data resolving current unknowns. It will show, for example, whether N. C. voter law requirement of photo ID and the abolition of straight-ticket voting increase average voting time so much that voter waiting lines get “backed up.” The potential consequences: congested poll entrances, gridlocked streets leading to them, and voters hindered from casting ballots when they had planned to. (Photo ID will be required for the first time in the 2016 general election).
Moreover, say Democrats, it won't be known until after that election whether early voting numbers actually are sufficient to take pressure off election-day voting places, as the Board appears to be assuming in proposing fewer of them. And it's not known now whether the N. C. legislature will further narrow early voting availability before then.
Democrats point out that, like all other county elections boards across the state, the local Board has no choice but to assume 2016 elections requirements on the basis of current assumptions that may not hold valid.
And voters and elections workers have no choice but to change their accustomed practices to accommodate new voter law requirements.
However, Democrats say, the Elections Board does have choice whether and when to impose on voters and elections workers the challenge of coping with the different problems typically arising from changing precinct boundaries and voting places.
Creating a situation in which voters and elections workers are forced to cope simultaneously with both voter law changes and merger complexity in the same large presidential-year election would magnify the risk that serious election problems will negatively affect voter access and experience, the party says. At the hearings, Elections Board Chair Wayne King told those attending—estimated to be about 30 at each—that the Board has the legal authority to initiate precinct changes it deems appropriate. (Changes would be subject to final approval of the state Board of Elections. The state board has a Republican majority as the local Board does).
Although hearings are not required by law, King said, the Board offered them to hear public comments prior to its expected decision on proceeding at its regular monthly meeting July 8.
First public notice of the hearings was given in an ad (pictured above) run twice in the local newspaper Shelby Star the week prior to the first hearing Monday, June 23. Representatives of both the local Democratic Party and NAACP said that was insufficient communication to make citizens aware of the hearings, any details of the Board proposals, or the fact the Board anticipated taking action as soon as July 8 on a merger proposal not previously publicized.
At the hearings, Elections Director Dayna Causby used slides to illustrate the proposed precinct configuration, provide registration and elections statistics, and describe cost savings and other efficiencies believed achievable by the proposed mergers.
Chair King's comments indicated that the Board's key reasons for its merger proposal include the potential cost savings as well as the efficiency achievable by combining a Shelby 6 and 7 merger simultaneously with the necessary relocation of the Shelby 6 voting place before the November 2014 election. He said the Board has been informed the existing church site cannot be made available because of planned construction.
No member of the public attending the hearing spoke in favor of the merger plan. --By Cleveland County Democratic Party
___________________________________*Correction: An earlier version of this article 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 the 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.___________________________________