Big Precinct, Big Trouble? Boone, NC Grapples with Consolidation

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Boone, NC is in the midst of a hot election policy debate after the Watauga County Board of Elections voted to consolidate its three polling places into a single location with more than 9,000 voters. The Watauga Democrat has more:

Critics are not ratcheting down their opposition to several election changes made by the Watauga County Board of Elections at a heated meeting Monday.

Among the most controversial was a decision to combine three Boone precincts into one containing 9,340 registered voters — an action that created the state’s fifth largest precinct based on voter tallies, according to a Watauga Democrat analysis …

The board voted 2-1 Monday to recombine Boone’s three precincts into one. Chairman Luke Eggers and Secretary Bill Aceto, both Republicans, voted for the plan, while Democrat Kathleen Campbell voted against.

As of Aug. 11, the precinct had 9,340 registered voters, including 2,252 who are considered inactive.

Of those registered, 2,553 are registered Democrats, 1,925 are Republicans, 4,714 are unaffiliated and 148 are Libertarian.

The total number of registered voters makes the unified precinct the state’s fifth largest, according to an analysis of the most recent data available from the N.C. Board of Elections from October 2012.

“Nine thousand voters in a precinct is larger than the typical precinct,” said Wright, the general counsel. “As to whether it’s proper and can be handled by the election workers at the polling place is a different issue.”

Much of the frustration stems from concerns that the board’s chosen site can’t handle the demand:

The board’s vote Monday creates one polling place for Boone at the Agricultural Conference Center between King Street and Poplar Grove Road.

The parking lot closest to the voting site contains 28 regular parking spots and two handicapped spots, if all equipment is moved from the lot.

Parking lots located to the side and front of the building provide roughly 25 more spots and one additional handicapped spot. If voters were to park in the grass, entry driveways or blocking the loading dock, another 15 to 20 parking spaces might be available in the immediate vicinity of the building.

These concerns are especially strong given how other communities have sited large precincts:

Similarly populated precincts across North Carolina use a variety of polling places.

The state’s largest is the East Northwood precinct near Jacksonville, home of Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base. As of Oct. 31, 2012, that precinct had 10,405 voters who vote at the Jacksonville Commons Recreation Center, which has a large gymnasium with two basketball courts, a lobby and two meeting rooms.

According to the Jacksonville web site, the building can hold approximately 2,700 people at one time.

Onslow County Deputy Elections Director Kelly Horne said that while the number of voters may sound high, it can be deceiving. Many take advantage of early voting and absentee voting by mail, she said.

“You’ve got to remember that we’re kind of a military community, so just because it has that many doesn’t mean there’s quite that many that show up on Election Day,” Horne said.

In Mecklenburg County, which has two precincts with larger voting populations and one nearly equal to the recombined Boone precinct, voting places include an Oasis Shrine Temple, a middle school gym and a Baptist church.

“I would easily assume that you would have over 100 parking spaces at sites like that,” Elections Director Michael Dickerson said.

He said that ensuring access for disabled voters is first on the priority list, followed by space considerations, when choosing polling places.

“First thing we look at at a big precinct like that is how can I handle parking?” Dickerson said. “And parking’s usually my key — can everybody get there? Secondly, if you’re getting there, do I have enough room where I can … get them in and get them out?”

Harnett County Elections Director Claire Jones said there are more than 100 parking spots at its Barbecue precinct polling place: a high school gym. The precinct contains 9,835 registered voters, and Jones said it didn’t typically experience long lines or waits.

“At the larger polling place, we just have to make sure that they are staffed with more workers, that they have more voting booths,” Jones said.

Supporters of the change think the site is suitable for voters – and question the validity of the 9,000+ voter total for the combined precinct:

“Even if the Board of Elections were to have a larger-than-expected turnout on Election Day at this precinct, we have chosen a location which is easily scalable and can accommodate a large turnout of voters,” Eggers wrote in a letter Monday to the N.C. Board of Elections executive director.

He said the site had “ample parking” and was “very walkable, with local AppalCART bus service to all locations within this area,” the letter states.

He also said the number of registered voters in the precinct — 9,340 — could be misleading due to the nature of the Appalachian State University population.

“The number of individuals listing a dormitory as their primary residence is much larger than the number of actual residents in the Boone precincts due to the requirement that voters may not be purged from the voter lists until they have been inactive for two presidential election cycles (or at least eight years),” Eggers wrote.

He also pointed out that the three previous Boone precincts were within a one-mile area and even when combined, create the county’s smallest geographic precinct.

The state board must review and approve the change. Stay tuned …

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