Early voting sites could be cut in Surry

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A long line of citizens wait to cast ballots in October 2020 at an early voting site in Mount Airy, which is in jeopardy of not being open for a primary scheduled in May.

DOBSON — Early voting stations conveniently located across Surry County have been a regular part of recent election cycles, but that landscape could drastically change under actions by members of a local board.

This surrounds a proposal to eliminate all but one early voting site in the county, situated at the Surry Board of Elections office in Dobson.

Others have existed in Mount Airy, a heavily used venue at the Surry County Government Resource Center behind Arby’s, along with locations in Pilot Mountain and Elkin, allowing citizens to cast ballots ahead of Election Day and avoid possible crowds.

During a meeting last week which lasted three hours, two persons on a five-member board that oversees Surry’s elections process advocated having only the Dobson early voting location for a primary scheduled on May 17, which is a mandatory site.

This proposal produced a 2-2 tie among board members, with the deadlock broken by county Board of Elections Chairman Dwayne Carter. He voted against limiting the locations to just one, which a member advocating that says is rooted in cost and security concerns.

However, since the decision was not unanimous, the matter is now required to be settled by the North Carolina State Board of Elections through a hearing scheduled early next month.

“It’s taken out of our hands,” Carter summed-up this week regarding the eventual outcome that now rests with what he called “a higher authority.”

State law requires county boards of elections to designate the number of voting sites that will be operating any time an election is approaching.

“Those have to be voted on,” Carter said of approval by board members, who represent both major political parties in order to ensure the integrity of the election process.

Carter and two fellow members, Clark Comer and Drew Poindexter, are affiliated with the Democratic Party, while the other two persons on the board, Tim DeHaan and Jerry Forestieri, are Republicans.

After the motion to operate only the Dobson location was voted on and failed 3-2, another was introduced to open all four, as was the case in 2020. This spawned the same 3-2 result, in favor of the motion, with Carter again being the tiebreaker.

“In discussing this there was a question of compromise,” Carter said of efforts aimed at possibly having two or three early voting sites operating as opposed to just one or the full slate. “And there was no compromise.”

Board members’ lack of a consensus officially put the ball in the state’s court.

The decision has to be unanimous,” the chairman reiterated. “So that was sort of the fly in the ointment.”

Reasons for positions

DeHaan, of Elkin, couldn’t be reached for comment this week regarding his stance on the early voting sites, but Forestieri cited multiple concerns about having four locations.

Forestieri, a Dobson-area resident, said he supports the absentee ballot/early voting process, but questions whether all four will be needed for the mid-term election cycle that is occurring this year.

“My position is, I would only be in favor of Mount Airy and Dobson for fiscal reasons,” he said. “We’re looking at cost per vote versus access to voting.”

During the last mid-term election in 2018, 7,895 in-person votes were cast at the Mount Airy early voting site and 4,210 in Dobson.

Forestieri said an expense of $20 per ballot has occurred with outlying early voting in the past due to low turnout, which he indicated is too much.

He also believes a security issue is involved, due to no form of photo identification being required for voters. Forestieri supports that step, although North Carolina has backed away from it in recent years.

So having more early voting locations expands the risk of potential problems from a security standpoint, in the view of the elections board member.

Forestieri says “legal games” have undermined the photo requirement for six years.

“I’m not against early voting except for fiscal reasons,” he added. “But I don’t like early voting without a picture ID.”

Carter, who joined the Surry Board of Elections in 2015, said his position in supporting four sites in the county being offered is all about access. “To have them open for the convenience of the voting citizens of the county, to make it easier for them to vote.”

He also questions the monetary aspect that has arisen among some on the elections body.

“The budget was set up to have the four open,” the chairman said of funding for that being included in the 2021-2022 county spending plan.

“So money was not an issue.”

A hearing between local board representatives and the state Board of Elections is scheduled on March 7, which will involve one member of the minority position on the issue and one member of the majority stating their respective cases.

That session will be held on a virtual basis using a platform such as Zoom, according to Carter, as opposed to one that’s face to face.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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