COLUMBUS COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Early voting doesn't start for another month, but it's already causing controversy in Columbus County.
The Board of Elections there closed two of the six one-stop early voting sites in Fair Bluff and Bolton.
According to Board of Elections Director Carla Strickland, the board decided to close the sites because of a state law that went in to effect in June. The law increased the hours that one-stop early voting sites have to be open, and more hours means more money to pay workers and maintain the buildings.
It's money that Strickland said the board doesn't have.
Voter turnout records from the past three non-presidential year elections show the Fair Bluff and Bolton sites coming in last. Fair Bluff's site will merge with Chadbourn's, moving into a space on Highway 76 four and a half miles from both towns.
Bolton will merge with the East Columbus site.
Tabor City and the main office in Whiteville will stay the same.
According to Strickland, the early voting sites used to be open 2-8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.
Now, the sites have to be open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m.-1 p.m. the Saturday before the election.
Strickland said that bumped costs from $32,935 to $84,719.
"I stand behind the board in this decision," she said. "No. 1, we wanted to make sure, as we have in the past, that all of our satellite one stops were geographically located throughout the county, giving access not to just any group of voters — municipal voters or what have you — but to all of our voters throughout the county."
With a dense population of African-American and low income voters living in the areas affected, some have called into question the board's decision to close these sites.
"I take offense to any particular group accusing this board, myself, this office of voter suppression," Strickland said. "Neither race, party or anything of that subject matter were even brought into consideration."
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Amon McKenzie said he wishes the board had been consulted about the decision before it was made. He said the commissioners would've argued that people in the areas affected already have trouble getting to the polls.
"I think a lot of times decisions are made that should come by the commissioners because we know a little bit about the counties that we govern," McKenzie said. "We want to make sure that everybody is on the same sheet of music and make sure that everybody is treated fairly and every opportunity is given to every person who wants to vote and we don't put barriers in the way.
"In other words, we remove barriers. It's easier for folks to vote and not more difficult for folks to vote."
Strickland said she told the county manager about the decision the week of Aug. 13, and "didn't keep them in the dark." She said it was a "timing sequence" regarding when she told county leaders.
The board of elections had to submit its budget to the commissioners in early June. The new state law went into effect June 27. The board of elections decided to close the early voting sites on July 17, and had to submit this plan for approval to the state board of elections by July 20.
"We followed all procedures," Strickland said.
McKenzie said he wants to work with the board of elections to possibly reopen the sites.
These changes are only for the early voting period. All precincts across the county will be open on Election Day with normal hours.
Early voting starts Oct. 17 and ends Nov. 2.