Boos, Chants Fill Heated Watauga County Board of Elections Meeting Monday, ASU Voting Site Eliminated

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Elections 5

The meeting began in the board room of the Watauga County Board of Elections office inside the courthouse. People supporting “voter rights” wore green in protest of agenda items that the board eventually passed this morning. Photos by Jesse Wood

By Jesse Wood

Aug. 12, 2013. While admonishing the other two members on the Watauga County Board of Elections, Kathleen Campbell, a Democrat on the three-member board, threatened legal action multiple times during the heated Watauga County Board of Elections meeting on Monday that included a roomful of boos and jeers and ended with a chant of “shame on you.”

The meeting, which initially began in the board room of the Watauga County Board of Elections office in the courthouse, recessed after 20 minutes and re-convened in the commissioners’ boardroom next door to accommodate dozens of community members, many wearing green in protest of agenda items the Republican majority, Bill Aceto and Luke Eggers, would pass before the meeting’s adjournment.

The contentious resolutions and motions passed that will change how and where town residents and college students vote in the municipal elections in November include:

  • Limiting early voting polling places to only the commissioners’ boardroom at the Watauga County Administration building on King Street. (Last year early voting took place at the courthouse, the campus of ASU and at the Foscoe Fire Department.)
  • Combining three Boone precincts – Boone 1, Boone 2 and Boone 3 – into one that is located at the Watauga County Agricultural Conference Center. (In the last election, residents of those precincts voted in the Watauga County Board of Commissioners boardroom, ASU Plemmons Student Union and the agricultural conference center.)
  • Changing the New River 3 polling location from the Boone National Guard Armory to Mutton Crossing, located at 4469 Bamboo Road.

Monday’s meeting was the first with all three new members present. Aceto and Campbell were sworn in last month. After Jim Hastings declined the appointment, Eggers became the third member last Wednesday and called today’s special meeting last Thursday afternoon.

Eggers and Aceto signed the “Notice of Special Meeting” on Thursday. While the agenda – not the meeting’s packet – was provided to Campbell and the Watauga County Board of Elections staff at the end of last week, Director Jane Ann Hodges and Campbell said they hadn’t received packet information until minutes before Monday’s meeting. Campbell said she requested the packet information last week but was denied from Eggers and Aceto.

While alleging that Eggers and Aceto were in violation of open meeting statutes, Campbell was irate that Watauga County Republican Chair Anne-Marie Yates, whose brother Mark Templeton is running for Boone Town Council, knew of details regarding the changes to early voting sites and election-day precincts prior to the meeting.

“That is damn illegal,” said Campbell, who noted that she was “pretty hot around the collar.”

She described the prior actions of Aceto and Eggers as questionable, unethical and illegal.

“You boys should be ashamed of yourself,” Campbell said. “You guys are really out of line.”

During the meeting, Eggers never addressed Campbell’s accusations but Aceto did say, “For the record, we never consulted.” 

After Aceto and Eggers voted for themselves as chair and secretary and after Campbell said neither was qualified for office positions, the meeting recessed and re-convened a short while later in the commissioners board room to address the entire agenda.

The next vote concerned changes to directorial duties of Hodges. One change insists that no staff member of the Watauga County Board of Elections shall be present at the office outside of normal business hours from the time one-stop voting starts and the completion of canvass unless another staff member is present.

Hodges noted that during the election season she is in the office many days from 6 a.m. to midnight and that it would be “impossible” to have staff around her at all times. The document reads that this measure is to ensure “full accountability and integrity to the election process,” and Eggers said that this is for the “security of ballots.”

While Hodges is now required to assist the chairman in preparing the agenda, another new rule includes, “The director shall not become involved in discussion or debate of political or discretionary decisions of the board regarding the location or number of polling places or early voting sites and hours, except to the extent necessary to advise the board whether such location would be in violation of state or federal law or other administrative rule of the State Board of Elections.”

Aceto and Eggers voted for the changes in directorial duties. Campbell was the lone nay vote. 

After all three voted on new voter registrations pending approval, a routine monthly action, the board then addressed a resolution to establish a public comment process. The majority of those in attendance jeered when they learned that only written comments would be accepted under the resolution. 

“We do value the input of the people,” Eggers said, adding that state law doesn’t require public comment and that the board must balance the comment period within timeframes handed down from the state. 

(Hodges, after the meeting, said the prior Watauga County Board of Elections didn’t have a public comment period.)

Campbell offered amendments to the resolution, such as the Watauga County Board of Elections shall not establish, relocate or discontinue precincts and early voting sites without ample time prior to the vote for a full public comment period.

Her motion for the amendments failed, and Eggers and Aceto voted 2-1 for the resolution, “Establishing Public Comment Process.”

After this vote, Campbell said a judge should “have an injunction and throw the two of you off this board” to a standing ovation from the raucous crowd. At this time, two sheriff deputies were at the back of the board room and Eggers noted to the audience, which was very vocal, that many of those in attendance were out of order and those who refused to “obey the lawful commands of the board of elections” may be ordered to spend no more than 30 days in jail.

Next, the board voted on the “One-Stop Implementation Plan for 2013 Municipal Elections.”

Under this plan, the only early voting site would be located on the ground floor of the Watauga County Administration Building in the commissioners’ board room, and opponents to this plan contend that it is to restrict the college vote because of the lack of early voting on the campus of ASU.

Proposed hours include:

  • Thursday, Oct. 17 to Friday, Oct. 18: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Monday, Oct. 21 to Friday, Oct. 25: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Monday, Oct. 28 to Friday, Nov. 1: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Saturday, Nov. 2: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

During last November’s election, early voting sites were located at the Foscoe Fire Department, on the campus of ASU and the Watauga County Courthouse. Aceto said the “reason” for this plan is that there is ample parking in downtown and that voters won’t have to bypass security checkpoints conducted at the entrance of the Watauga County Courthouse.

Then Aceto and Eggers voted to combine three Boone precincts (Boone 1, Boone 2 and Boone 3) into the Watauga County Agricultural Conference Center. During the last voting cycle, the precincts were located at the Watauga County Board of Commissioners board room, ASU Plemmons Student Union and the agricultural conference center.

Before the vote, Campbell asked Hodges how many people were in those precincts. Hodges said more than 9,300 people. In response to another question, Hodges said that election guidelines in the state of North Carolina contend that maximum voters in any one precinct be 1,500. Each of those three districts had more than 1,500 voters in the last election cycle, and two had more than 3,500 voters.

Hodges estimated that 20 workers would be needed for the combined Boone precinct and that the ag center and its 35 or so parking spaces is big enough to accommodate her staff.

“I will make it work if my board directs me to do it,” Hodges said when asked if this was possible.

This combining of Boone precincts won’t be effective unless approved by the executive director of the State Board of Elections.

During the next vote regarded changing the New River 3 polling location from the Boone National Guard Armory to Mutton Crossing, located at 4469 Bamboo Road, Campbell pulled out population maps and noted that the Armory, while near the edge of the voting district, was central to the majority of New River 3 population.

“This is just damn stupid,” Campbell said.

The resolution for the location change stated: “Whereas, the present location of the New River 3 precinct is located at the edge of the precinct and is not centrally located for the residents of the precinct. Additionally, the National Guard Armory is subject to need by the National Guard in the event of a local, state-wide, or national incident. Further, the National Guard Armory is located in a flood plain, which increases the risk of damage to voting equipment and ballots in the event of flood level conditions.”

After a few unanimous votes regarding routine elections business, Campbell requested a public comment period at the end of the meeting for community members to voice their opinions. With Aceto and Eggers not siding with Campbell for a public comment period the meeting ended to shouts of “shame on you.”

Sitting in the front of the audience was Jeremy Collins, a staff attorney for Southern Coalition for Social Justice who jotted down notes during the meeting. He said his office received an alert from local “watchdog groups” about the short-notice meeting.

“I think there are some serious issue here,” Collins said after the meeting. “But we are a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that is just concerned about any actions that any boards across the state or across the country might take that result in making voting more difficult for lawful voters.” 

On Friday, Watauga County Republican Chair Anne-Marie Yates said the accusations of repressing and restricting voter rights are “absolutely” false and that “moving voting places that are less central to Boone [makes] it easier for people to go vote in their townships.

“It is an effort to make voting more convenient for more people,” Yates said.

  • Elections 6

    A man holds a “Voter Suppression is Immoral” sign inside the courthouse.

  • Elections 5

    The meeting began in the board room of the Watauga County Board of Elections office inside the courthouse. People supporting “voter rights” wore green in protest of agenda items that the board eventually passed this morning.

  • Elections 4

    This was one of multiple standing ovations Kathleen Campbell received while opposing the agenda of the Republican members of the Watauga County Board of Elections.

  • Elections 1

    The meeting began in the board room of the Watauga County Board of Elections office inside the courthouse. People supporting “voter rights” wore green in protest of agenda items that the board eventually passed this morning.

  • Election 2

    Luke Eggers (left), Director Jane Ann Hodges, Kathleen Campbell, Bill Aceto and Donna Houcks, an elections staff member. Photo by Jesse Wood

Watch first portion of meeting directly below and click the following link to watch the second part of the meeting:

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0Bw9ra0V6AmH5WXJfVVl3WHVBaVk/preview?pli=1

Click here to read about minutes of the this meeting being deleted at the Aug. 20 Watauga County Board of Elections meeting. 

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