Rules for North Carolina’s one-stop early voting program are an unusually emotional topic.

This system allows people to register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time, and gives voters the chance to get to the polls at their convenience in the weeks ahead of Election Day.

It’s wildly popular: More than 40% of all the state’s registered voters cast ballots early in 2016, and early votes made up nearly two-thirds of all the votes cast that year.

In-person early voters tend to be Democrats, and African-American. Weekend early voting, and Sunday in particular, is popular among African-Americans as well, data shows.

What did the General Assembly do to early voting this year?

The Republican-led state legislature passed a law that requires county boards of election to standardize early voting hours across their territories.

In the past, counties have been able to create early voting plans with wildly different hours and days of operation at different sites. Some sites would only be open weekends, some would be open in the morning and afternoon, some just in the afternoon, some just in the morning, and some

It was honestly a wildly convoluted mess. If the Republicans had come up with this system, they’d have been attacked for suppressing voter turnout by confusing people. Even I, a journalist, had several times showed up to vote early only to learn that my site wasn’t open as I thought it would be.

The new law states that:

  • All early voting sites in a county should be open on the same days. If one is open, they all need to be open.
  • On weekdays, all early voting sites are to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • On weekends, all early voting sites should have uniform hours.

Initially, the plan was to end early voting on the Friday before the election instead of Saturday. Amid an outcry, that last Saturday was added back.

All this appears to be fairly common-sense, but the media coverage was brutal. Slate called it “A Diabolical New Ploy to Suppress Black Voter Turnout.”

Is that true?

No, the facts don’t bear that out whatsoever.

New data from the State Board of Elections (and conveniently distributed by Gerry Cohen) shows that overall early voting hours have nearly doubled since 2010, the last election before Republicans took their majority.

Sunday hours — when historically black churches often conduct “Souls to the Polls” campaigns — have increased even more.

Data via the State Board of Elections

Even compared with 2016 and 2012 — presidential election years that usually have more early voting hours — the 2018 plan goes far above and beyond.

Opponents claimed that the new law would force mass numbers of site closures and dramatically limited weekend voting hours. That clearly didn’t happen.

Where is the fair debate here?

You’ll notice that yes, the overall number of early voting sites has fallen from 2014 (though it’s still higher than 2010).

That’s a fair debate: Should North Carolina prioritize the number of sites or the overall availability of early voting?

I’d argue that the efficiency and consistency of standardized hours is more beneficial to voters than slightly more sites with weird hours. It’s OK to disagree. But let’s have that debate rationally, not screaming about voter suppression.

When can I early vote this year?

Early voting will begin October 17 and run through November 3.

You can look up your county’s early voting sites here.

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