NC Board of Elections Orders Watauga County to Establish Polling Place at ASU

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Several years ago, I wrote about the dispute between students at Appalachian State University and the Watauga County Board of Elections regarding a polling place on the ASU campus. That dispute re-emerged yesterday in a conference call involving the State Board of Elections, which ultimately overruled the county board and ordered the setup of a voting center on the Boone campus. HCPress has more:

The State Board of Elections unanimously voted to include an early voting site at Plemmons Student Union on the campus of Appalachian State University for the March primary. The Wednesday ruling was 4-0 with one of the three Republicans – Chair Grant Whitney – abstaining from the vote.

The State Board of Elections was tasked with choosing a one-stop plan for Watauga County because the local county board of elections didn’t unanimously select a one-stop plan in January.

Republicans Bill Aceto and Nancy Owen chose a plan that didn’t include an early voting site on the college campus, while Democrat Stella Anderson’s minority plan did. So the matter went before the state board.

The controversy broke down along partisan lines at the county board:

On Wednesday, members of the State Board of Elections harked back to 2014, when local Republicans tried to deny an early voting site on the college campus for the general election.

Local Democrats – one of which was Anderson, who wasn’t a board member at the time – sued, claiming that the adopted plan in 2014 was discriminatory to college-aged voters and violated state and federal constitutions.

In fact, Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens would rule shortly before early voting was to begin in the fall of 2014 that the State Board of Elections was required to adopt a plan that included a one-stop site at the college.

That litigation was a key point in yesterday’s debate, with the State Board asking Watauga to address its findings in light of its current decision:

Stephens wrote in his order: “The early-voting plan by the majority of members of the Watauga County Board of Elections was arbitrary and capricious. All credible evidence indicates that the sole purpose of that plan was to eliminate an early voting site on campus so as to discourage student voting and, as such, it is unconstitutional.”

Multiple bi-partisan members of the State Board of Elections cited this ruling when making their decision on Wednesday afternoon. Republican SBOE Member James Baker, a retired superior court judge, read the above paragraph authored in Stephens’ opinion and asked Owen what has changed in Watauga County in the past year and half.

“Wow. OK,” Owen stammered. After evading the question, she eventually said that she couldn’t answer specifically because she wasn’t on the board at the time of Stephens’ ruling. Owen was sworn in during that January meeting, when the local board voted 2-1 on the issue that was now before the State Board of Elections. It was among her first actions on the board.

An inexperienced board member, Owen was tasked with answering this question because Aceto was having trouble connecting to the conference call…

Once Aceto was able to connect and speak to the board members, he was asked this same question directly three or four times in slight different ways. One such version was, “What is factually different now?” …

Aceto said that more recent voting records at polling sites on ASU showed an older voting demographic… Malcolm then responded that SBOE staff “ran data” based off of Watauga County figures that show the voters at the ASU site is 20 years younger than all of the other precincts.

There was also an argument that the current plan already meets the needs of ASU students without disenfranchising other rural voters:

During the meeting, Anderson noted the popularity of the early voting site on ASU as far as the volume of voters that cast ballots and stressed the overload that the Watauga County Administration Building site would incur if it were to handle those voters as well.

“Is it justifiable to have 70-plus percent of our voters depending on one county site?” Anderson asked.

Aceto, though, said that an early voting site on the campus isn’t warranted because of the downtown site that already exists on King Street in the Watauga County Administration Building, which is just a short walk from campus. Aceto said that he didn’t want to disenfranchise the rural citizens. He praised that the average voter was less than five miles away from the one-stop locations in the majority plan.

“I think we have to have that balance,” Aceto said. “… I am not against an ASU site. I just don’t think it’s necessary.”

County board members also argued that the budget was set for the primary and couldn’t be expanded – leading to a compromise solution by the State Board:

In response to Aceto’s concerns that the county had already set a budget and that budget didn’t allocate resources for an early voting site at ASU, Malcolm offered up a solution and then a motion.

Malcolm motioned that the Watauga County Board of Elections close all of the satellite sites through the county on one of the traditionally slower days of early voting and then spread those hours into an ASU early voting site for the remainder of the early voting period. See the new hours and voting locations below.

Secretary Rhonda Amoroso, a Republican who was acting as interim chair with Whitney’s abstention, seconded the motion.

“I think at this point, we need to put this thing to bed and have a compromise,” Amoroso said.

The board unanimously approved the ASU site and, Amoroso then directed Watauga County Board of Election Director Matt Snyder to report feedback to the state board any complications or issues that might arise with the one-stop site at ASU during the primary.

These kinds of siting fights are always difficult; partisan differences (i.e. town vs. gown as GOP vs. Democrat) aside, local officials may not understand why students want an on-campus polling site when other options are not far away off-campus. But more and more, localities with large student populations are establishing on-campus sites because they have a greater likelihood of bringing in student voters. It will be interesting to see what the county election director reports back – and if the obvious partisan differences on the county board persist.

Stay tuned …

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