By Jesse Wood
Tuesday’s night’s meeting was a movie we’ve watched before: Despite persistence from local Democrats and a state elections board mandate prior to the primary, Republicans in Watauga County really don’t want early voting to happen in the Plemmons Student Union on the campus of Appalachian State University.
Instead, the Republican majority on the Watauga County Board of Elections, which consists of Bill Aceto and Nancy Owen, favored a proposed one-stop plan for the general election in November that features a site at Legends on Hardin Street.
The majority plan also features early-voting sites at the Watauga County Administration Building in downtown Boone, Blowing Rock Town Hall, Western Watauga Community Center in Cove Creek and at the volunteer fire departments of Meat Camp and Deep Gap.
The majority plan features 304 combined hours of early voting at all six sites throughout the early voting period, which runs from Thursday, Oct. 27 to Saturday, Nov. 5. Aceto said that the plan offers nearly 100 more hours of early voting than is required by the state.
“I am proud that we offer more voting hours than the majority of counties in North Carolina,” Aceto said.
He also mentioned that if you draw a radius around all of the proposed early voting sites, then “every voter within that precinct is within 5 miles for that location.” (Aceto has previously opposed precincts on the campus because of the proximity to the Watauga County Administration Building in downtown Boone.)
“So I think it’s very helpful for us to have the outlying districts. I think we all can agree on that. You can applaud that if you like, but I am sure you are not going to,” Aceto said, directing his comments to Stella Anderson, the lone Democrat on the Watauga County Board of Elections.
To which, Anderson replied, “We do all agree [on that] … I think it’s telling that the minority member on this board, whether it was Kathleen Campbell or now me, has never ever even thought about doing away with the out-in-the-county four locations despite the fact that they don’t draw very many voters. It’s not about taking away sites that are out in the county, it’s about maintaining the one that is one campus.”
Aceto responded – before trailing off to another question from Anderson, “And we are going to do that by having a site on campus [Legends], a site that is less than 200 yards away from the other site [Plemmons Student Union]. I find it very hard to believe…”
The only significant difference between the majority and minority plans is that the Democrats favor Plemmons Student Union over Legends. Because a plan wasn’t adopted unanimously, the matter moves before the State Board of Elections.
Plemmons Student Union was the location of an early voting site in the spring primary. It was by far the most popular one-stop site. Based on figures released by the Watauga County Board of Elections office months ago, 3,250 people voted early in Plemmons Student Union – versus 2,530 at the administration building in downtown Boone and 1,435 at the other four sites (Blowing Rock, Deep Gap, Meat Camp and Cove Creek) combined.
The State Board of Elections (SBOE), in fact, mandated the early-voting site at Plemmons Student Union in the 2016 primary when it was tasked with adopting a plan because the local, bipartisan three-member board wasn’t in unanimous agreement.
In February, the SBOE chose the minority plan, which featured an early voting site at Plemmons Student Union on ASU, over the majority plan, which didn’t feature any early voting site on the ASU campus.
In making their decision, members of the SBOE in February cited Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephen’s opinion in the fall of 2014 regarding this similar issue: “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.”
At the February meeting, the SBOE members then asked what had changed in Watauga County since Stephens’ wrote his opinion; Aceto and Owen’s answer to that question didn’t sway the SBOE and was rebuked by the state board.
Before a unanimous vote in favor of the plan with a Plemmons Student Union one-stop site by the SBOE, Secretary Rhonda Amoroso, a Republican acting as board chair due to an abstention by Chair Grant Whitney, also a Republican, said, “I think at this point, we need to put this thing to bed and have a compromise.”
But back to Tuesday night’s meeting …
For Republicans in Watauga County, that “compromise” is Legends, and the State Board of Elections sometime in the coming weeks will look at the two plans – the majority one with a site at Legends and the minority one with the site at Plemmons Student Union.
Republicans state that Plemmons Student Union has too many exists and entrances, so its hard to enforce established buffer zones for any last-minute electioneering and campaigning. They also say that Legends is easier for folks to access and find because it’s located off the highway, on a corridor, as opposed to a side street like Howard Street, where a parking lot for Plemmons Student Union exists.
Of about 30 people who spoke during public comment at Tuesday’s meeting, seven spoke out against an early-voting site at the Plemmons Student Union, including Watauga County Republican Party Chair Anne-Marie Yates, who said she’s witnessed buffer zone infractions and illegal campaigning; former Watauga County Board of Commissioner Chair and Republican attorney Nathan Miller; a former student; an elderly women who said Legends is easier for her to access; and a couple residents of Beech Mountain who wondered what all the fuss was about whenever they have to drive all the way from the top of Beech Mountain to vote early.
“Moving the polling place to Legends makes more sense. We are not taking away the rights of students to vote. If they want to vote, then they can walk to Legends. Taking away the right for students to vote would be taking it off campus completely,” said Caroline Yates, a Boone native and former App State student. “When Legends turns into a night bar, then nobody has any complaints about walking down there [as far as] how far it is from campus.”
Democrats, on the other hand, think that Plemmons Student Union is the most convenient place for staff, faculty and students to vote. It is the central hub of the campus, and ASU Chancellor Sheri Everts with consultation from her leadership team and the SGA endorsed the Plemmons Student Union in June as the “only location on campus that satisfies our mutual goals of providing a convenient and safe environment for citizens and volunteers in compliance with statutory requirements for elections.” Her response came with a caveat – unless, Everts said, she receives documentation that states otherwise. Her response was in a reply to a letter from Aceto, who noted that the Plemmons Student Union was problematic and “not a workable location.” The chancellor hadn’t received a response back as of last night’s meeting.
Joan Brannon, who spoke in favor of the Plemmons Student Union and received the loudest ovation of the speakers, directed her comments to Aceto and his letter drafted to the chancellor: “There is an oft-quoted truism that I believe applies here. ‘You can put lipstick on a pig but it is still a pig.’ In this case, I believe the lipstick is using statutory obligations to dress up the pig of voter suppression.”
Clark Streets, a junior majoring in Political Science, was among a handful of students, including SGA President Jayln Howard, who spoke in favor of the early-voting site at the Plemmons Student Union.
“Why not utilize a location that’s been so successful in the past. There’s no reason why [early voting should not take place] in the Student Union,” Streets said. “I don’t see any reason why it should be removed especially since it’s been so effective.”
See the correspondence between the chancellors of App State and Caldwell Community College and Aceto below: