By Julia Harte
ASHEBORO, N.C. (Reuters) – When Bill McAnulty, an elections board chairman in a mostly white North Carolina county, agreed in July to open a Sunday voting site where black church members could cast ballots after services, the reaction was swift: he was labeled a traitor by his fellow Republicans.
“I became a villain, quite frankly,” recalled McAnulty at a state board of elections meeting in September that had been called to resolve disputes over early voting plans. “I got accused of being a traitor and everything else by the Republican Party,” McAnulty said.
Following the blowback from Republicans, McAnulty later withdrew his support for the Sunday site.
In an interview with Reuters, he said he ultimately ruled against opening the Sunday voting site in Randolph County because he had “made a mistake in reading the wishes of the voters.” He declined to discuss the episode further.
This year’s highly charged presidential contest between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump has stoked accusations by both parties of political meddling in the scheduling of early voting hours in North Carolina, a coveted battleground state with a history of tight elections.
In emails, state and county Republican officials lobbied members of at least 17 county election boards to keep early-voting sites open for shorter hours on weekends and in evenings – times that usually see disproportionately high turnout by Democratic voters. Reuters obtained the emails through a public records request.
The officials also urged county election boards to open fewer sites for residents to cast ballots during early voting that began on Oct. 20 and ends on Saturday.
Civil rights advocates and Democrats launched their own campaigns for expanded early voting hours.
The tug-of-war yielded mixed results.
The state did ultimately add nearly 5,900 more hours and 78 more sites to vote early than in 2012. But several counties opened only one polling site during the first week of early voting, slightly denting turnout across the state. Voter turnout dropped by 20 percent in the counties that had multiple polling sites during the first week of early voting in 2012 but just one site during the first week in 2016.
“We currently have more early voting locations and hours open than ever were open under Democrat control,” said North Carolina Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse, denying his party was trying to suppress the Democratic vote.
President Barack Obama praised the expanded early voting opportunities during an election stop in North Carolina on Wednesday.
“Those who wanted to suppress the vote, they’re going to fail,” he said at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in Raleigh. “Right now, there are more one-stop early vote sites in North Carolina than ever before.”
Counties that Obama, a Democrat, won in 2012 increased their Sunday hours this year by 16 percent, while counties that voted for his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, decreased them by nearly a quarter, the records show.
State Republican officials say keeping polls open during evenings and weekends, or “off-hour” times, drains county resources.
‘FOLKS ARE ANGRY’
In two emails, on Aug. 11 and Aug. 14, Woodhouse urged Republicans serving on county election boards to follow the “party line” on curtailing the early voting period.
“Many of our folks are angry and opposed to Sunday voting,” he wrote. “Six days of voting in one week is enough. Period.” Keeping polling sites open for the full 17-day early voting period “may be wasteful and unnecessary,” he added.
Woodhouse’s emails were subsequently published by local media, but he was not alone in lobbying to limit voting hours, the Reuters review of public records shows. The review counted similar emails from at least four other Republican Party officials to election boards, each of which is composed of two Republicans and one Democrat.
The same day that Woodhouse sent his Aug. 11 email, Elaine Hewitt, a member of the Rowan County Republican Executive Committee, sent the county elections board two proposed schedules for early voting, both of which included just one site for the first four days and no sites on Sundays.
“With all of the opportunities to vote by mail, early in person Monday – Saturday, and on Election Day, there is no justification for requiring election workers to work on Sundays,” she wrote.
Garry Terry, the chairman of the Republican Party for North Carolina’s First Congressional District, sent an email on Aug. 13 to elections board members in his region, reminding them to act “in the best interest of the Republican Party” by opposing Sunday voting and restricting early voting to one location.
Hewitt and Terry did not respond to requests for comment. Woodhouse defended the actions of the Republican officials, telling Reuters that Republican opposition to Sunday voting was not discriminatory but was rather based on the belief that people should not be required to work on Sundays.
The Sunday polling site that McAnulty first supported and then opposed would have been located at the Randolph County Board of Elections office and would have cost around $1,000 to operate, according to the office director.
“If it’s not wasteful and it allows more people to vote… the board has historically been for that,” Margaret Megerian, the Democratic member of board, told Reuters.
‘A SIGNIFICANT TRIUMPH’
In contrast with the Republicans’ email campaign, the Democratic push to expand early voting hours has largely taken shape in public forums.
In Democratic-leaning Guilford County, the state’s third largest, a county board of elections meeting on Aug. 8 attracted about 75 people after word spread that the board was planning to halve the number of early voting sites, from 24 in 2012.
The Rev. Nelson Johnson said in an interview that the proposal by the board’s Republican chairwoman would “prevent voting especially by people who can’t easily take time off” and said it “absolutely” had a racial intent. Johnson, who is African American, leads a community center in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Board Chairwoman Kathryn Lindley told Reuters she believed “a lesser number of sites would cause less confusion about which places were going to be open,” and that it was “ludicrous” to think her suggested plan had been discriminatory.
The board ultimately agreed to 25 early voting sites and one day of Sunday voting before the November election. Johnson said the decision was “a significant triumph.” Lindley said Johnson’s group had no influence on the final outcome.
Guilford’s plan also included one restriction that particularly angered Democrats. In the first week of early voting in 2012, residents could vote at 16 sites. This year, that has been reduced to one.
Mary Cranford, 52, a registered Republican, was fourth in line on the first day of early voting in Guilford. She was able to vote but said she was upset that only one site was open for the first week. She said she voted for Clinton this year.
“I can’t believe what’s been done to keep some people from voting in this state,” she said.
Just 7,916 people voted in the first week of early voting in Guilford this year, compared to 60,732 in 2012, according to state elections board records.
The general counsel for Clinton’s campaign and other plaintiffs filed a court motion on Oct. 1 demanding Guilford and four other North Carolina counties expand their early voting opportunities. The court denied it, saying that changing the early voting plans “would create logistical difficulties.”
(Reporting by Julia Harte, additional reporting by Andy Sullivan, editing by Jason Szep and Ross Colvin)
IMAGE: North Carolina campaign buttons sit on a table before the start of a rally with Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump in Fletcher, North Carolina, U.S. October 21, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst – RTX2PW7X