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Board of Elections Discuss Proposed Budget Concerns, Voter ID guidelines, Redistricting

The Watauga County Board of Elections meets on Tuesday, May 9. Photo by Zack Hill.

By Zack Hill

The Watauga County Board of Elections met on Tuesday, May 9, at the Watauga County Administration Building at 814 W. King Street. In attendance were board director Matthew Snyder, chairman Michael Behrent, secretary James Hill, and members Eric Eller and Matt Walpole with member Marv Williamsen attending via Zoom and county attorney Andrea Capua present at the meeting.

Board director Matthew Snyder updated the board on several agenda items that will have an effect on how elections will be carried out and how they will affect the voters and communities in Watauga County.

The board members discussed the county’s proposed budget for 2024 and how funds would be allocated for elections. The budget was recently proposed by the county commissioners and provided to Snyder by the county manager’s office.

The board of election members were particularly concerned with potential long lines at polling stations during 2024 elections because of a lack of requested funding. Snyder said that several budget requests, including a pay raise for poll workers and a request for more personnel at polling stations, were not granted by the county in the proposed budget.

“It does not appear that any of the salary increases for poll workers were approved,” Synder said. “None of the additional computer operators were approved. I have some concern in that. Once I factor out the $20,000 to cover municipal election labor cost, we will be over budget.”

“It leaves us with basically no assistance [to fully staff polling locations]. We’ll have an average of five people at every precinct and it will create some long lines.”

Snyder said the polling stations would ideally be staffed by eight or nine workers but the current budget proposed by the county does not provide for them.

Board member Eric Eller asked what that would do to the length of lines of people attempting to vote. Snyder indicated it would cause them to be as long if not longer than lines at the last round of elections.

“What the county has done budgetary-wise, they’ve decided that line wasn’t long enough and they want a longer line,” Eller said.

Snyder said the budget information had just been passed to him on Monday.

“I know it’s hard to put together the county budget. Everyone is asking for it [funding],” Behrent said. “But I don’t think long lines for this upcoming election are a good idea.”

Eller said that the burden the lack of funding would create would fall unfairly on the shoulders of poll workers.

“The poll workers aren’t getting any extra pay for the extra stress,” Eller said.

Hill echoed Eller’s concerns.

“Poll workers are going to face the brunt of the decision, not the county commissioners,” Hill said.

“They [poll workers] are the folks we should be appreciating more than anyone,” Eller said. “Without the poll workers, there is no election.”

Snyder also expressed concern with the budget for printing, postage and mailing of ballots and other election-related material. Legislation still playing out in the N.C. General Assembly and courts regarding voter IDs and absentee ballots along with upcoming increases in USPS rates could cause the budget for postage and mailing to increase substantially from the last round of elections. The board said the current budget, which was based in part on the cost of that last round of elections, is dangerously close to being insufficient without factoring in the additional increases in printing, mailing and postage costs.

Snyder said he had contacted Caldwell, Burke and Wilkes counties about their budgets to get a better gauge of how they financed their elections, noting that Watauga has roughly the same amount of registered voters as those counties.

Snyder said that Caldwell County has a budget of around $150,000 for the same elections that Watauga is currently budgeted around $90,000.

“They’re budgeted $60,000 more than we are,” Snyder said. “[They have] roughly the same amount of registered voters, maybe a few thousand more, but roughly the same.”

Snyder reported the total number of active voters currently in Watauga County at 36,349.

The board discussed how to bring their concerns to the county commissioners and how to make the public aware of the potential issues.

“I think it’s important they [the public] are aware. In the end it’s their election,” Eller said. “Regardless of outcome or anything I we do, if we’re looking at things that have potential to adversely impact providing them the election they deserve, I think they need to know about it.”

“It seems to me that the public should be made aware of the potential impact. I don’t know anyone on either side of the political spectrum that wants long lines at the polls. That doesn’t help anyone.”

The board also discussed changes in voting protocols for convicted felons and how current legislation could affect voter ID requirements at polling sites. 

“Felon voting rights have reverted back to what they were a few years ago,” Snyder said. “Unless you’ve completed all phases of their probation and paid any fines and penalties, your voting rights are not returned.”

Board secretary James Hill asked if that would affect Watauga County’s current list of voters and if the county would need to remove some voters from the roll.

“Hopefully the state is working on how to electronically catch them,” Snyder said. “There’s a report that runs monthly that’s the felon list that we check. I imagine they’re working with the department of public safety in one fell swoop instead of county-by-county.”

Snyder also addressed changes in state voter identification laws and several cases currently working their way through courts that could affect the elections but said the board would have to wait and see how they played out before taking any substantial action.

The board was also concerned with how state election boards would view Appalachian State University IDs. Michael Behrent, who serves on the school’s faculty senate, said the matter was still being discussed at App State but he would go back to them for further clarification.

Snyder told the board that the state legislature is currently working on redistricting portions of North Carolina precincts but that the process is currently under way with no actionable decisions for the local board to be able to take at this time.

“Redistricting is back,” Snyder said. “Expect N.C. House and U.S. districts to be redrawn. What that means to us right now, I don’t know. What it could mean is multiple ballot styles and having to make sure everyone is properly in jurisdiction so they get the proper ballot. My hope is we go back to being a one ballot county. That solves a lot of issues for us.”