by Diane Rufino, July 24, 2012
This morning at the Pitt County Board of Elections, “Organizing for America” (ACORN) succeeded in pushing its brand of “community organizing” in Pitt County for this November’s election by convincing the board to approve Sunday voting. And not just your garden-variety “Sunday” voting, but a full-throttle, balls-to-the-walls effort that would surely make Barack Obama and Eric Holder extremely proud. During early voting, which will begin on Thursday, Oct. 18th, Pitt County will allow voting on two Sundays – Oct. 21 & 28th.
The Pitt County Board of Elections voted 2-to-1 to approve Sunday voting. Because the vote was not unanimous, the decision will go to the NC State Board of Elections and a 5-member panel of attorneys will render that in the coming month or so. But being that the panel was appointed by Governor Perdue, a liberal Democrat who vetoed the Voter ID law, we can almost predict what their decision will be.
Voters were notified of the hearing this morning when word just happened to spread by email. And it’s a good thing the word got out. Many concerned voters showed up to voice their opposition to Sunday voting, just as they had done in 2008 and 2010. This year, opponents filled the room so completely that people were left standing and many lined the hallway. “Organizing for America” was present, as well as the NAACP. Betsy Leech, chairwoman of the Pitt County Democratic Party, sent a representative. Members of the Pitt County GOP, including its chairwoman Ginny Cooper, Republican Women for Pitt County, including its president Kitty Staskelunas, and the Eastern NC Tea Party were there. Several pastors were in attendance. But the overwhelming number of people who showed up were just concerned citizens and taxpayers. All waited patiently to have their concerns voiced and recorded.
One of the first persons to speak from the crowd was a black woman who said she moved to NC from NJ. Her name was Ms. Kimberly Carney. I mention her race only because of the message she delivered. She began by saying that “her people” have been treated terribly and then made the general assertion that people are still trying to deny them rights. She used the “N” word and accused people in the room of snickering at her because of her color. Mr. Nelson, a member of the board, took great offense to her comments and fired back at her. (He later apologized for raising his voice but said he will not tolerate anyone accusing him of trying to disenfranchise anyone’s voting rights).
Several black persons in the room spoke up in favor of Sunday voting. They said that they need every opportunity possible to make it out to the polls, including two Sundays when they can be bused to the polls after church service. They claimed that the other days – Monday thru Saturday – were not sufficient. They said that without Sunday voting, they would be disenfranchised, even though there wasn’t even an early voting period at all in Pitt County prior to 2000. There was simply one-day voting – on Election day (with a limited absentee ballot provision). There were a few pastors who addressed the board and supported Sunday voting for the same reason – so that church buses could take their members to the polls.
Other pastors in the room, however, went on record to oppose Sunday voting. They asked the board to recognize the Sabbath and to recognize the Christian traditions on which our country was based. They acknowledged that proponents of Sunday voting like the fact that their churches can organize trips to the polls. But these pastors suggested that if churches wanted to do the good stewardship thing, they would find ways to help their church members to get to the polls on Monday thru Friday and on the two Saturdays that are provided. Many others spoke to the same theme, about churches and even individuals coming to the aid of those who need rides to the polls – but doing so on Monday thru Saturday so that Sunday could continue to be a day of worship and family time for election officials, poll workers, and others involved in the election and political process.
Others, such as Ms. Coral Whichard, see the reverence of Sunday as an individual obligation to God and the government’s endorsing of Sunday voting as an impermissible violation of Church and State without a “compelling state interest.” She gave an eloquent review of the Constitution, the role that God’s law has played in our country, and how our early presidents and government representatives used Sunday to worship (in fact, government buildings themselves were used for services. As Coral explained, the Capitol building itself housed 4 different churches on Sundays for 50 years!). Several people, including Ms. Pat Terry and Diane Rufino, spoke against Sunday voting for personal reasons. They said that they are poll workers and having to work on Sunday offends their right of religious conscience. One black lady made a suggestion to the board that they come up with a policy of replacing any poll worker who has a religious issue with another worker for Sunday voting. While the proponents of Sunday voting supported that suggestion and two of the board members even nodded in agreement, many found it offensive because it did not address those people who volunteer at the polls. For those people who feel deeply compelled to volunteer and serve at the polls to disseminate truthful information and promote candidates, they will be forced to miss church service, miss Sunday time with family, and offend God’s law by not observing the Sabbath. In other words, Sunday voting forces people to choose between two fundamental rights and privileges – the rights of religious conscience and the right to participate in the political and election process. The government is not supposed to do such things, absent a “compelling state interest” and means that are the “least restrictive” of the exercise of individual rights.
Ginny Cooper, as the chairwoman of the Pitt County GOP and a woman deeply committed to her faith, listened carefully to the comments made – by both sides. Although she wanted to raise her hand to speak several times, she chose her issues very carefully. She said she didn’t want to make Sunday voting a political issue. And that’s why she made the point that the early voting period, together with the absentee ballot option, is more than adequate and more than fair for everyone – regardless of race or politics.
A former ECU professor got up to say that in all the years (27 years, if I remember correctly) that she has worked, she has never heard a single person complain that they could not find the opportunity to vote, even when voting was held on only one day. Others offered similar testimony, noting that they themselves, working over 40 hours and even working far distances, never missed an opportunity to vote.
After many comments were made touching on the issue of religion and the issue of the intentional disenfranchisement of black voters, a sharply-dressed young man named Jude Watts took the discussion in a different direction. He stated that: “Sunday voting is not a religious issue or a racial issue. It is a taxpayer issue.” He said that there is ample opportunity for everyone to vote in the early-voting period and that adding two Sundays will cost the county and recklessly spend taxpayer money. The board noted that the money had already been set aside, to which Mr. Watts shot back: “It doesn’t mean you have to spend it. Save it for something more important.” When Ms. Lisa Taylor, a member of the board, commented flippantly that it only amounted to about $1000 dollars extra, Watts retorted: “I don’t care if it is only $1. It isn’t your money to spend. It’s the people’s. As public servants, you are supposed to be good stewards of the peoples’ money.” Another man raised his hand and told the board that he is a small business owner and hasn’t had a job in over a year. He said: “I’m sorry that $1,000 doesn’t sound like a lot to you. But it does to me and I could sure use it.”
But the real meat of the discussion came when Mr. Lawrence Watts asked the board to state, for the record, the options open to ALL voters during the early-voting period. Mr. Davis, the director of the Pitt County Board of Elections, explained that all voters can vote at one-stop voting locations for 2 1/2 weeks prior to Election Day, with hours that can certainly accommodate persons who work full time. Locations are open at 8:00 in the morning and while some may close down at 5:00 pm, there are locations that remain open until 7:00 pm. In addition, those who can’t physically travel to a polling location have 60 days to submit an absentee ballot to the Board of Elections. The enormity of early voting really hit home to the crowd of people. People who want to vote have two full months to do so. They have options to do so in person or by mail. There are no racial or religious barriers. As Mr. Watts emphasized: “Clearly, anyone who really wants to vote has ample opportunity to do so.”
Just when it seemed that the hearing was coming to some type of conclusion and comments were concluding, Mr. John Born asked a simple question. He wanted to know why the board was even considering Sunday voting. Was the change something the board itself initiated or was an outside request made? Two members of the board – David Conradt and Lisa Taylor – refused to divulge who made the request, but Patrick Nelson was willing to give the information, after the conclusion of the meeting. It wasn’t until the crowd became frustrated and restless that the director, Mr. David Davis, offered to reveal the information by reading the requests directly from the record. It was Organizing for America (ACORN) , the NAACP, and Betsy Leech who had made the request. The request for the change in early voting came not from concerned citizens but from political machines with a political agenda. The request came not from individuals themselves who had real issues of voter disenfranchisement but from political organizations who want to make it more effective to get voters out for Barack Obama.
The NAACP representative who was present said his organization supports Sunday voting because, as he put it, Sunday is the only opportunity that many blacks have to vote. When asked about why they can’t take advantage of the absentee ballot option, he said “well, maybe I don’t have enough money for a stamp.” Of course, that opens a whole ‘nother can of worms… maybe the government’s decision to raise the price of stamps is racially discriminatory. Someone, get on that please !!
Diane Rufino made one of the last comments of the morning. She noted that for most of her life as a voter, voting has been limited to one day – Election Day. Before she moved to North Carolina and except for the last several years in Greenville, she had never even heard of early-voting. At that point, Mr. Nelson offered a quick history of early-voting in Pitt County. He said that prior to 2000, individuals were allowed by law to vote early if they fell into 3 exceptions (that is, if they had a legally “recognizable” excuse to vote early). In 2000, the state Board of Elections decided to provide an early-voting period as an alternative to everyone.
Diane then finished her comment by asking how long do we intend to allow people the opportunity to vote. It’s 60 days now. Do we intend to extend it to 6 months? If we provide Sunday voting to accommodate black voters, where do we draw the line? We can find ways to make voting easier and more convenient for every single voter, but we have to draw the line with respect to reasonable limits and accommodations. What about those people who travel for a living? If blacks can’t find it possible to submit absentee ballots within a 60-day window, as the comments made in the hearing made clear, can it be expected that a businessman who travels for a living can find such opportunity? What accommodation should be made for someone like him? What about the person who works long days and wants to sleep on Saturday and go to church on Sunday? Where’s his accommodation?
I want to emphasize the reason I’ve taken note of race in this discussion. It is because the issue of Sunday voting, within the confines of the hearing before the Pitt County Board of Elections, was clearly a racial issue. As Organizing for America and the NAACP made abundantly clear, they aren’t concerned about the ability of voters in general to get out; they are only concerned about getting out the black votes. The term “equal rights” was thrown around many times at the meeting, by those urging the board to vote for Sunday voting. What is often hard to understand, and it was exemplified by the debate for Sunday voting, is why black people still accuse everyone of trying to deny them “equal rights” when often what they want is a different set of rules to play by. In this case, they stressed that they need a special day to vote, even when it is at great odds to other groups and even if it costs the taxpayers more money. But then one has to put the hearing in proper perspective. Sunday voting was the brain-child not of ordinary citizens but of ambitious political organizations. The people pushing Sunday voting were most likely more motivated by political goals than their true understanding of equality and fairness. [In fact, when the hearing was concluded, there were a few black women who spoke to some of the women who opposed Sunday voting and they thanked them for their comments and expressed their disgust over the majority vote by the board].
Towards the end of the meeting, the board talked about the different voting plans presented and because most people weren’t able to get a hand-out listing the options (they didn’t anticipate so many people would show up), this was the first time they were hearing about the differences among them. The plans presented by Organizing for America and the Democratic Party not only included Sunday voting but also included greatly expanded hours at a newly-added location on the ECU campus. As at least two persons wanted to know why extended hours were needed on a college campus when students notoriously have lots of time and opportunity to vote during the day. They also noted that the polling location will likely be at Minges Auditorium which is heavily under construction (the parking area, that is) and not easily accessible to those who aren’t students. There was no answer given. The extended hours at the ECU location will cost the taxpayers an additional $4,000.
When a political organization suggests all of a sudden that new and separate accommodations are needed for certain voters – in particular, those making up an important voting bloc – in order to exercise their voice, and especially when that organization is ACORN (“Organizing for America”) which has been found guilty of many counts of widespread and systemic voter fraud, there is reasonable cause for suspicion and concern. It is unfortunate.
When the discussion period concluded, the board took a 10-minute break before it deliberated its decision. When it returned, each member offered some comments before the vote was taken. Mr. Nelson gave a very passionate explanation of his prior votes (against Sunday voting in 2008 and again in 2010) and said he continues to take a position against Sunday voting because the early voting period gives an ample opportunity for ALL votes. He also said: “Make no mistake, Sunday voting was politically motivated. It was not a voter initiative but was requested for a political purpose.” Mr. Conradt said he will continue to support Sunday voting because “it works!” He said that 630 people voted on Sunday in 2008 and 330 in 2010. He called that a “huge success.” But of course, he was exceedingly misleading in his facts and mistaken in his conclusion. Those who voted on Sunday didn’t do so because they absolutely couldn’t on the other days but simply because it happened to be more convenient to do so.
The board then proceeded to address the early-voting plans (Plan A – no Sunday voting and Plan F – two Sundays). Mr. Nelson made an extraordinary offer to Ms. Taylor and Mr. Conradt. He said in the interest of having the Pitt County Board come up with a unanimous decision so that the State Board wouldn’t have to make the decision, he would agree to only one Sunday. He extended quite an olive branch. But the other two refused to compromise. And so, the vote was 2-to-1 in favor of Sunday voting and it will be appealed to the State Board of Elections. Despite the overwhelming commentary and preference by residents and voters of Pitt County for Plan A, the board nonetheless chose to endorse and support the plan urged by ACORN.
The bottom line is that the early-voting period, which provides extended hours at convenient locations for 2 1/2 weeks and allows 60 days for anyone to submit an absentee ballot, is an inclusive, neutral accommodation for ALL voters. It is more than enough of an opportunity to get out and vote. It is more than accommodating. Anyone who can make it to church on Sunday can also come up with a way, whether through church stewardship or by neighborly kindness, to make it to the polls to vote any day Monday thru Saturday. Anyone who is truly committed to exercising their right to vote will do so and will find the time and opportunity. If it important enough, individuals will make it a priority to vote.