McFeely: Republicans, Democrats differ over axing an hour of voting time
Why making it more difficult for citizens to vote is seen as a good idea remains a mystery, but North Dakota's most populous county might be going down that road. Why isn't exactly clear, but this much we know: The issue appears to be breaking down along party lines.
Republicans appear willing to take away an hour of voting time for Cass County residents. Democrats don't. In some ways, it mirrors the national debate over access to voting.
Cass County auditor Mike Montplaisir and election coordinator DeAnn Buckhouse sent an email last week to the county's district party chairpersons asking for input on changing the poll closing time from 8 p.m. to 7 p.m. for the 2018 election cycle. Montplaisir and Buckhouse wanted to test the waters on the proposal before submitting a recommendation to the Cass County Commission, which makes the final determination.
With a June primary awaiting and the deadline to make changes looming, the county officials are pushing for a quick answer. Why they waited until early April to begin a dialogue over an issue that needs to be determined in a couple of weeks is unclear.
In the email, Buckhouse told the party district chairs that reasons to consider closing the polls earlier include a drop off in voters after 7 p.m.—though she admitted she didn't have "exact statistics"—and the belief Cass County is the only county in the state that does not close at 7 p.m.
"This creates issues with the surrounding counties, when the media reports that polls close at 8 PM, not realizing that this only applies to Cass County," Buckhouse wrote.
Montplaisir said in an interview that nothing has been determined and that the auditor's office is "just asking the question."
"If it's not something that's appropriate, we don't do it. If it's determined it is appropriate, we'll recommend changing it. Nothing has been decided yet," Montplaisir said.
When asked if somebody brought up the issue or whether a specific situation prompted the discussion to arise now, Montplaisir said no.
"We're just asking the question. It's something we thought we should talk about," he said.
According to some emails sent to the auditor's office from party district chairmen, whether or not to take away an hour of voting is a question answered by party affiliation.
Christopher Olson, a Republican from District 13 in West Fargo, wrote he's in favor of closing polls at 7 p.m.
"Polls have to close at some point, and it would provide greater orderliness and uniformity to the process if we were in line with every other county," he wrote. "If voting is important to an individual they will make the time to ensure that they are out to the polls before they close."
Sam Wagner, the Democratic-NPL party chair from District 22 in rural Cass, wrote it's worth keeping open the polls even if voter numbers drop between 7 and 8 p.m.
"... there is no reason to close the polling an hour earlier. In Casselton and many areas of rural Cass we have people that commute home from Fargo. This extra hour helps them out making it to the polls," Wagner wrote. "Another concern is that we have a higher population in Cass County than the rest of the state (and) there are more people to cater to than the rest and more hours makes it easier for them to vote."
Chris Langerud, the Republican chair of District 44 in northeastern Fargo, said he supports consistency in statewide poll-closing times.
"There are plenty of early voting opportunities in Cass County for everyone to find the time to go and vote," Langerud wrote.
Scott Stofferahn, the Dem-NPL chair from District 46 in southeastern Fargo, supports the polls staying open until 8 p.m.
"I strongly oppose closing the polls earlier. While there may be a dropoff, citizens deserve every chance to vote, and it shouldn't be too hard to notify local news media in advance of the correct times," Stofferahn wrote.
And so it went. Of the dozen emails obtained, they split evenly: Six Republicans supported closing polls at 7 p.m. Six Democrats supported keeping them open an hour longer. There are 13 legislative districts in Cass County, most that have a chair from both parties, so the emails provided only a snapshot. But that picture reflects what is happening nationally.
Generally, Democrats oppose measures supported by Republicans that reduce access to voting. The 2016 election saw voters in 14 states face new restrictions on voting or registration. Requiring voters to have a photo ID at the polls is the most visible way Republicans put up obstacles to voting, but not the only one. Some GOP-led states tried to eliminate Election Day registration or made it more difficult for college students to vote. Deep-red Texas was contemplating shortening the early voting period by several days.
While dropping an hour of voting time in Cass County might not be as nefarious as those attempts, the effect will be the same—limiting access to the polls. Even if it's only a small number of voters affected, Republicans and Democrats should agree to keep the polls open until 8 p.m.