By Jesse Wood
March 5, 2014. Just like the general election last November, no early voting will take place on the campus of Appalachian State University during the upcoming primary on May 6.
On Tuesday evening, the Republican-led Watauga County Board of Elections voted to have one-stop sites at the:
- Watauga County Administration Building in downtown Boone
- Western Watauga Community Center in Sugar Grove
- Blowing Rock Town Hall
- Deep Gap Fire Department
- Meat Camp Fire Department
While Chair Luke Eggers and Secretary Bill Aceto voted for the aforementioned sites, Kathleen Campbell, the lone Democrat on the three-member board, had a plan of her own that included sites out in the county and sites at the Watauga County Courthouse, Boone Town Council Chambers and Plemmons Student Union at ASU.
Bill Aceto submitted the approved plan, and because it wasn’t a unanimous vote, the matter will go before the State Board of Elections, which entertained proposals from local board members in September regarding early voting during the 2013 general election.
The state board, which is controlled by a Republican majority, upheld an early voting proposal favored by Aceto and Eggers that eliminated early voting on the campus of ASU last fall.
The hours of operation for each of the five sites in the plan passed Wednesday night are:
- Thursday, April 24 – 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Friday, April 25 – 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Monday, April 28 – 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Tuesday, April 29 – 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Wednesday, April 30 – 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Thursday, May 1 – 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Friday, May 2 – 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Saturday, May 3 – 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Giving his reasoning for such a plan, Aceto said that the five sites are geographically centered throughout the county. He also reiterated that the combined 305 operation hours at the five sites goes above and beyond the state-required 272 hours, and mentioned that more than two-thirds of counties within the state went in the opposite direction and decreased its early-voting hours.
In 2010 primary, the three sites were the Board of Elections office for 113 hours, Agriculture Conference Center for 89 hours and the Plemmons Student Union for 70 hours. With the plan approved for the 2014 primary, each of the five locations are open for an equal of 61 hours – no matter the population it serves.
Aceto mentioned that it was “important” to keep consistent hours.
(At a previous meeting in February, Watauga County Elections Director Jane Ann Hodges said that a new state law requires the county to provide the same cumulative total number of early voting hours offered in the May 2010 primary for 2014 and that the county will have one less week of early voting to meet those hour demands.
Hodges said the board would have to extend sites out in the county to meet those hour demands.)
Aceto also said that the early-voting site at the Watauga County Administration Building will serve as an acceptable voting place for Boone residents and those who work at ASU. Aceto said that the location is accessible via the AppalCART and by foot from the college campus.
Campbell then took the floor. She tried to ask Hodges, a veteran elections director of nearly three decades, questions about Aceto’s proposal.
However, Hodges declined to comment soon thereafter because of a prior resolution passed last August that silenced Hodges and stripped her of some duties as director. One such rule was that the director wasn’t allowed to discuss or debate “political or discretionary decisions of the board regarding the location or number of polling places or early voting sites and hours.”
“If you recall my duties adopted by the board in August, I prefer not to answer questions,” Hodges responded when asked what she thought would be the percentage of voters that vote in town as opposed to voting inside precincts out in the county.
Campbell asked Eggers, the chair, if Hodges could answer the questions, and Eggers essentially declined because the question was “rather subjective” and that the decision before them was a board decision – not a staff decision.
Campbell responded a few minutes later, “I am asking because I need to know. She is our source of knowledge. I would like permission from you.”
Aceto then replied, “I don’t think it is fair to put the director on the spot. [You should have] asked those before the meeting.”
Campbell then discussed her proposal, which consisted of the 91 operating hours at the Watauga County Courthouse early voting site being 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on all but the very last day of early voting.
As for her preferred sites at Meat Camp Fire Department, Western Watauga Community Center, Blowing Rock Town Hall, ASU Plemmons Student Union and Boone Town Council Chambers, those sites would have been open for 35 hours each during the early voting period with alternating daily hours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
In a prior meeting in February, Campbell said that the sites at the Watauga County Courthouse, ASU and Boone Town Council Chambers were preferred because 47 percent of active registered voters reside in Boone 1, 2 and 3; New River 1, 2 and 3; and a split precinct of Brushy Fork – in or near Boone. This is compared to, say, the Meat Camp area, which consists of North Fork, Meat Camp and Bald Mountain precincts that represent 7 percent of the active voters.
At that meeting, she said, “We can make people in Boone happy and people out in the county happy.”
Realizing she was outnumbered on the board on Wednesday, Campbell suggested coming to some sort of “compromise” that would include an early voting site on ASU and another one at the Boone Town Council Chambers. This caused Watauga County Republican Party Chair Anne-Marie Yates, who was sitting on the front row holding a sign advocating “fair voting for all Watauga,” to laugh.
Then the Democrats began laughing and the Republicans began applauding when Aceto, after stating that the board shouldn’t be “bargaining” on polling places, said that general statutes note that counties must provide “safe, secure and honest elections.”
“As a board, we’ve done a good job of that,” Aceto said to the commotion.
After Campbell said she had no further discussion, Eggers and Aceto voted for the proposal that didn’t include an ASU early voting location and Campbell was the lone nay vote.
The board then held an official public comment section at the end of the meeting.
Ian O’Keefe, a field director for the Watauga County Democratic Party, called the board’s vote “appalling” because it held a drop-in session to listen to citizens, where a vast majority supported an early voting site on the ASU campus by Aceto’s own admission, and voted “the opposite way.”
Stella Anderson, a household Democrat in Watauga and former Watauga County Board of Elections member, questioned why the operating hours are equal across the five early voting sites even though, in her own opinion, the early voting site at the Watauga County Administration Building will serve 80 percent of registered voters in the county while the other four locations would serve 20 percent of the voters.
Matt Snyder, a former chair of the Watauga County Republican Party, commended the board for its vote on Wednesday night and said that it was “about time” that communities out in the county received an early voting site.
Yates, the current chair of the Watauga County Republican Party, noted that she was a lifelong resident of the county, and that 66 percent of voters are rural.
“Thank you for reversing the previous plan that favored urban Democrats,” Yates said.
And to see a list of stories prior to 2014, click here.