Cleveland County Board of Elections considering merging 5 precincts into 2

jdepriest@charlotteobserver.comJuly 5, 2014 

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    The Cleveland County Board of Elections meets Tuesday at 9 a.m.

    The elections office is at 215 Patton Drive, Shelby.

    For more information, call 704-484-4858

— The Cleveland County Democratic Party and local chapter of the NAACP oppose a plan by the county board of elections to merge five Shelby election precincts into two and require different polling places for several thousand voters.

Board officials said merger is needed for efficiency and cost savings. They could take action when they meet Tuesday.

Opponents want the elections board, which is made up of two Republicans and one Democrat, to defer any consideration of changing precincts/polling places until after the 2016 presidential election.

They say forcing voters and election workers to deal with both precinct changes and new voter law requirements, including photo ID for the first time, increases the risk of serious Election Day problems.

Local Democratic Party secretary Pat Poston said the current elections board started looking at precinct mergers from its first meeting in July 2013.

“The board majority seems to be acting a step at a time to get its preferred precinct configuration in place,” she said. “No one here knows what that might look like or when they’re looking to have it done. Voters are left to wonder if their precinct is the next to be merged, if the board majority decides their precinct is too small or its voting place is so close to another that merging would inconvenience just some people and not all.”

The Rev. Dante Murphy, who heads the local NAACP chapter, said the group is against merging precincts because “nobody has given us a good reason of why to merge.”

Officials at the State Board of Elections said some county election boards around the state are considering merging precincts, and it’s a trend because of increased one-stop early voting.

In Lincoln County, Elections Director Bradley Putnam said the board is in the process of mergers that would reduce the number of precincts from 28 to 23. The cost of running each precinct during an election is about $1,800, he said.

Staffing can also be a problem.

“It’s a struggle to find people to work,” Putnam said

Precinct mergers include: Crouse and Heavners precinct into Howards Creek; Northbrook No. 1 and No. 3 into Northbrook; Oak Grove and Hickory Grove into Startown; and Love Memorial and Long Shoals into Laboratory.

Putnam said nobody voiced any opposition to the mergers at a public hearing, and the elections board voted unanimously on the issue.

Gaston County Elections Director Adam Ragan said his board is looking into merging some of the county’s 46 precincts.

“A lot depends on what the ideal size is,” he said. “It won’t happen until 2015 at the earliest.”

Cleveland County has 24 precincts, and each one costs $3,000 to operate on Election Day, according to Elections Director Dayna Causby. Four other precinct mergers have already taken place, she said.

In the 2012 election, early voting accounted for 53 percent of total voter turnout in Cleveland County, Causby said.

The mergers currently under consideration include Shelby 6 and Shelby 7 at Holly Oak Park; and Shelby 1, 2, and 3 precinct at Shelby City Park.

The elections board held two public hearings on the proposals.

Election board secretary Doug Sharp, a Democrat, isn’t opposed to merging Shelby 6 and 7 because the current polling place for Shelby 6 will have to move anyway. Putnam Memorial Baptist Church, where voters currently go, won’t be available for several years because of renovations.

But Sharp favors postponing action on the second merger “until after the 2016 presidential election.”

“There’s no real reason to do this right now,” said Sharp.

He suggested using the merger of Shelby 6 and 7 as an experiment. Combining the two would result in a precinct with 5,757 voters – the largest precinct in the county. The second merger would create an even larger precinct with 6,997 voters.

Sharp thinks lessons learned from operating the first merger under new election laws would be helpful in the second merger.

On the other hand, Republican board member Allen Langley sees no reason to delay action. He thinks the county has too many precincts.

“I’ve worked the polling places, and I see first-hand the challenges,” he said. “We’re trying to create clear, definite precinct lines which will be less confusing for voters.”

Merging precincts will save money, which Langley said is important because “all of us are working for the taxpayers.”

“I really think this is a good plan,” he said. “And I think it will work. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t support it.”

DePriest: 704-868-7745

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