Haywood County has two early voting sites — the senior resources center and the Canton library. Meanwhile, it has 29 voting precincts that are open on Election Day — begging the question: why so many, and are they still needed, particularly when some only see a few hundred voters during busy presidential election years?
Of Haywood’s more than two dozen precincts, Big Creek is both the largest and smallest. The precinct covers a large swath of rural Haywood County but only has 27 registered voters. The next smallest precincts — Fines Creek 2, White Oak and Cecil — have 200 to 400 registered voters each.
Those precincts are minuscule compared to high population precincts at East Fork, Cecil and Allens Creek, which have more than 2,500 registered voters each.
The precinct boundaries were drawn long ago, when many people didn’t own cars and were generally much less mobile. It is much easier and quicker to get around the county now, but it can still take residents in remote portions of the mountainous county 20 or 30 minutes to drive into town.
“Our topography is a lot different here in Haywood,” said Robert Inman, director of Haywood County’s Board of Elections. Consolidating smaller precincts like Big Creek and White Oak “would create an undue hardship.”
If anything, the Board of Elections’ main purpose is to make voting easy, Inman said.
“This is how our country decides who our leader is, and that is of the highest import,” Inman said.
When compared to Macon and Jackson counties, having 29 precincts doesn’t seem like an exorbitant amount. Macon and Jackson each have 15 precincts and a little more than half the registered voters that Haywood has.
However, Rutherford County — which has about the same amount of registered voters as Haywood — only has 17 precincts.
Early voting tips balance
As early voting continues to gain popularity, more early voting sites are not out of the realm of possibility. Early voting gives people a little more than two weeks to stop by the polls and avoid what has traditionally been an Election Day rush. As the practice of early voting becomes more common, Election Day has become less hectic.
In the future, Inman said, counties might open more early voting sites and have fewer Election Day locations. However, early voting would have to become the primary way people cast their ballot, he said.
Early voting was first approved in North Carolina in the 1990s as a way to make voting more convenient for the masses. Although its popularity has increased by nearly 100 percent with each presidential election year, 2008 was the first year that early voting numbers eclipsed Election Day voting totals.
“(Early voting) is something that is going to continue to grow over time,” Inman said, adding that he expects it to increase “at an incredible, astounding rate.”
This year, early voting did not increase nearly as much and accounted for about 60 percent of the total votes in the county. That still means 40 percent of voters waited until Election Day, Inman said, and those voters are just as important.
“If everybody were to vote (early), then we would change everything,” Inman said. “It is our responsibility to provide and ensure that the other half who do not vote early still have a voting place.”
But, more early voting sites also mean more expenses. It costs between $2,000 and $5,000 per extra early voting site.
“We don’t open more due to cost,” said O.L. Yates, chairman of the Board of Elections. “A lot of it comes down to trying to save the taxpayer money.”
Even if Haywood County could afford it, the county would need to find facilities large enough to accommodate early voters.
The largest usable building in the county is the senior resources center, which the Board of Elections already uses. It is the same building that saw long waits during early voting this year.
“The county doesn’t own any larger than those we currently use,” Inman said.
Building size is also a factor in deciding whether to close smaller precincts. If the county combined its White Oak, Big Creek and Fines Creek precincts — some of its smallest — for instance, the Board of Elections would need to find a facility that could handle 1,200 registered voters and is also centrally located. Consolidating precincts without having adequate sites could result in long lines.
“We would be in the same shape as some nightmare scenarios in other states,” Inman said, citing reports that voters waited three or more hours in Ohio and Florida to vote this year.
Election Day voting still busy
Although some might argue that fewer precincts would save money and that early voting is making so many Election Day locations unnecessary, the Board of Elections’ foot soldiers have not noticed a big difference when it comes to Election Day traffic.
“(Election Day turnout) seemed to be more than normal,” said Jerry McElroy, a poll worker who shuffled between the Pigeon, Pigeon Center, East Fork and Cecil precincts on Election Day. “They were extremely high, especially Cecil.”
Despite a majority of voters casting their ballots early this year and inclement weather conditions on Nov. 6, McElroy said Election Day numbers were positive.
“There was still a good, heavy turnout,” McElroy said.
Veteran poll worker Mary Feichter said she and her fellow volunteer kept busy at the senior resources center during early voting.
“We were busy every day. It was nice to see so many voters coming out,” said Feichter, who has worked the polls for 25 years.
However, Feichter said this year’s Election Day turnout at the South Waynesville 1 precinct was slower than she expected.
“I think it definitely declined. It’s just too convenient [to vote early],” Feichter said.
She added her approval of the idea of increasing the number of early voting sites in Haywood County.
“That would be wonderful. It really would be,” Feichter said. “You want to give the people a chance to vote anyway they can.”
But, Feichter said she understands the financial reality of trying to add early voting sites.
“It is very expense for the county,” Feichter said. “For our size county, I think having two is wonderful.”
The number of registered voters in each precinct varies wildly. Some have fewer than 300 while others exceed 2,000. The following are the smallest and largest precincts in Haywood County:
1. East Fork – 3,553 registered voters
2. Cecil – 3,103 registered voters
3. Allens Creek – 2,518 registered voters
4. Pigeon – 2,344 registered voters
5. Pigeon Center – 2,188 registered voters
1. Big Creek – 27 registered voters
2. Fines Creek-1 – 186 registered voters
3. White Oak – 274 registered voters
4. Fines Creek-2 – 386 registered voters
5. Ivy Hill – 712 registered voters