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Wake County NC Facing Tight Budgets, Tough Decisions as November Election Approaches

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[Image courtesy of WRAL]

Wake County, NC is facing a difficult decision about the November election. According to WRAL, limited funding is forcing the county election board to grapple with how, where and when to place polling sites for this fall's vote:

A lack of county funding has Wake County elections officials mulling over how to stretch their budget to keep early-voting sites open for this fall's presidential election.

The Board of Elections was considering cutting the number of one-stop polling places for November's election by 25 percent. But members voted Friday to reconsider after a public hearing at which 27 people spoke against the move.

Fifty-seven percent of all registered voters in the county - 235,000 - used early voting in 2008, and officials expect that number to rise to an estimated 272,000 this fall.

The board had asked county commissioners for $3 million for early voting, but received only $1.7 million - enough, says election board staff, to keep only 11 of the 15 sites from 2008 open this year.

They would also be open fewer days and fewer hours. Overall, the number of hours available for early voting would be cut by half - from 1,456 hours in 2008 to just 725 hours this fall.

The prospect of limited one-stop sites (where, under NC law, voters can register and vote on the same day, until the weekend before Election Day) has generated widespread opposition and will likely force the board to look for savings elsewhere:

The election budget has to cover not only early voting sites, but also staff, training, equipment and paper. As a result of redistricting, there will be 102 different ballot styles this fall - far more than the 42 ballot styles in 2008.

Each polling place must have all ballot styles available, since voters from any district can go to any site.

Bob Hall, executive director of the nonprofit Democracy North Carolina, says early voting is even more important this year, because longer ballots and more ballot styles could mean longer lines and confusion for voters, especially if they wait till Election Day to vote.

"We're headed for a train wreck, if you take that perspective," Hall said. "We've got to come back and re-orient and think about a better plan"

The Elections board voted unanimously to send the proposal back to the drawing board. Chairwoman Aida Doss Havel says staff will have to look for ways to stretch the budget.

"It may be that we'll go back to the county commissioners and ask for more money," she said. "I hope that we don't have to do that. I hope that we can be creative and find ways that we can have increased early-voting and a few more sites."

One possibility, Doss Havel said, might be to adjust election-day staffing at precincts where many voters cast their ballots early.

Another idea, she said, is to open early-voting sites a little later in the day.

One avenue of discussion is choosing new one-stop sites on local campuses; some observers complain that parking and access may difficult for non-students, but others argue that putting sites at walking distance could actually relieve the pressure on other sites.

Finally, in the category of "when it rains", Wake is losing two popular sites for reasons completely unrelated to funding:

[T]wo of 2008's most popular early-voting sites are off the list this year.

Polling sites at Cary Towne Center Mall and Triangle Town Center Mall served a combined 43% of all early voters in 2008.

But state law requires voting sites to allow electioneering - signs, flyers, candidate visits - near the polls.

Havel says mall owners have refused to allow electioneering inside the malls, so those locations are no longer legally eligible.

Voter ID and other legal struggles may dominate the headlines, but decisions like these - with all of the political pressures, fiscal consequences and customer service implications they entail - are going to be the ones keeping election officials busy from now until November.

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