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ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Buncombe County election officials are confident that residents will have plenty of time to vote early in the upcoming primary in spite of a reduction in hours approved by the state Board of Elections.

Ahead of the May 6 primary election, the county is among nearly a third in North Carolina that received permission to cut down on early voting hours below what last year's elections overhaul demanded of them.

The controversial law pushed by Republicans in the General Assembly decreased the number of early voting days from 17 to 10, but it came with a qualification. Counties would still have to offer at least the same number of cumulative hours for people to vote ahead of election day compared to the 2010 primary.

But 32 counties including Buncombe are using an exception in the law to get around the hour requirement. The exemption can only be granted if members of the requesting county's elections board and the state board agree unanimously.

The Buncombe Board of Elections argued that its early voting sites were underused before the primary four years ago, so the county doesn't need as many total hours.

Buncombe had 848 hours of early voting in the primary, which was more total time than in any other county in the state, said Trena Parker, director of election services.

But just 4,823 people took advantage, for an average of 5.7 voters per hour at eight sites, she said.

Parker said the county requested a reduction of 282 hours, bringing the total number of early voting hours for the upcoming primary to 566.

"The sites were underutilized (in 2010)," she said. "So I believe our adjustment will still provide numerous hours for an opportunity for Buncombe voters to cast their earlier ballots.

"We'll be able to serve the number of voters we expect to turn out just as efficiently."

Parker said most of the eight early-voting sites in Buncombe will be open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Early voting is April 24-May 3. Races for U.S. Senate and House and General Assembly seats are on the ballot, among others.

The other Western North Carolina counties that received permission to reduce early voting hours are Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Henderson, McDowell, Mitchell and Yancey.

State Board of Elections Chairman Josh Howard said he doesn't believe the exceptions granted will reduce access to the ballot box for people

Teresa Garland, director of the Graham County Board of Elections, said it won't be a problem for her county to serve early voters with fewer hours.

"The board believes that providing 85 cumulative hours will sufficiently accommodate Graham County voters while staying within our budget," Garland wrote in the application. The law required 104 hours.

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