By Jesse Wood
Sept. 3, 2013. After listening to all three members of the Watauga County Board of Elections and Elections Director Jane Ann Hodges on Tuesday afternoon, the State Board of Elections, in a 4-1 vote, upheld the move by Republican board members Chair Luke Eggers and Secretary Bill Aceto to eliminate the early voting site on the campus of ASU for the 2013 municipal elections in November.
The State Board listened to Kathleen Campbell, the lone Democrat on the Watauga County Board of Elections, and her appeal for an alternative early voting implementation plan that consisted of an early voting site inside the Linville Falls Room in the Plemmons Student Union on the campus of ASU, and the State Board listened to Eggers’s and Aceto’s reasoning for limiting early voting to only the Watauga County Administrative Building on West King Street. (See written petitions to the State Board of Elections from both sides here.)
Campbell noted that one-third of the registered voters in Boone lived in dorms and that ASU is the largest employer in Watauga County. She said voters would have issues finding parking in front of the site and that the AppalCART from campus would take 40 minutes to arrive at the administration building – something that Eggers disputed. Eggers said that Administrative Building is only one-half mile from the Plemmons Student Union, something Campbell disputed, and that another AppalCART route only was about a 10-minute drive.
Referring to Eggers’ past comments that new changes were for “convenience,” Campbell asked, “Why are we eliminating one that is convenient for one-third of the voting population?”
In touting her plan, Campbell mentioned that Hodges said the one-stop site at ASU added no additional costs and that elimination of the one-stop site at ASU also produced no savings – something that Aceto disputed during his brief comments to the State Board. Campbell also noted that the plan involving the Linville Falls Room addresses all of Eggers prior concerns about another room in the Plemmons Student Union being used as an early voting site – such as handicap access, curbside voting and a buffer from distribution of campaign materials.
In defending his plan, Eggers said noted that prior municipal elections had low turnout during early voting.
State Board of Elections Chairman Josh Howard, a Republican, noted more than once during the hearing that roughly a combined 1,300 voters early voted during the 2009 and 2011 municipal elections. He said that low number justified the elimination of the early voting site on ASU.
Campbell noted that in one of those elections, no contests existed for Boone Town Council or for Boone Mayor and that the university early voting site turnout more than doubled the turnout at other early voting sites at the time.
“It’s true turnout was exceptionally low in 2011 … I don’t know why anybody voted,” Campbell quipped, adding that the board in front of her shouldn’t use past voter turnout in making decisions for the upcoming elections.
She added that using low-voter turnout as an excuse to eliminate the “most popular” early voting site and “disenfranchise a major segment of the voting population” is a “sad and un-excusable and unjustifiable reason.”
Chair Howard asked the Aceto and Eggers if they planned to vote to recombine the Boone precincts and utilize the Legends building to serve as a polling precinct on the campus of ASU – as opposed to Plemmons Student Union. Both told Howard that they were planning on voting to make those changes happen at tomorrow’s meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 4.
Howard then told Campbell that part of her argument made “very clear” that the proposed unified super precinct, along with the elimination of early voting on campus – “exacerbated pressure” on the access of voting on campus by students and workers.
“Which they are taking off the table,” Howard said.
Campbell said, “We haven’t voted on anything coming up.”
In explaining his rational for his vote, State Board of Elections Member Paul Foley, a Republican, said, “I don’t believe the numbers support two one-stop early voting locations.”
Foley went on to say that the board recently heard an appeal regarding Winston-Salem having one or two sites. He said that Winston-Salem has only one voting site and so far during the current partisan primary, things are running “extremely smooth.”
Foley encouraged students to vote absentee from there own dorm beds.
State Board of Elections Member Maja Kricker, a Democrat, noted that the appeal for Winston-Salem regarded opening a new early voting site and not closing one such as is the case in Watauga County. She noted the letter from Boone Mayor Loretta Clawson and the resolution passed by the Boone Town Council.
“I think it’s in the interest of fair elections that we keep this site open,” Kricker said. “This goes beyond efficiency. This has to do with the perception of fairness.”
State Board of Elections Member Rhonda Amoroso said the closing of the ASU site wouldn’t be a big problem and that “college students are smart.” Essentially, Amoroso said they will figure it out. She also echoed Foley’s sentiments on low voter turnout during the prior municipal elections.
State Board of Elections Member Joshua Malcolm, a Democrat, never specifically said why he was voting with his Republican counterparts, but he did chastise the Watauga County Board of Elections members for “not getting along.”
In reference to Eggers and Aceto not allowing Campbell nor Hodges a chance to see meeting agendas and packets until the beginning of the said meeting, Howard noted that: “You guys need to get along. I saw this on YouTube. This is not how elections in North Carolina need to be run.”
Malcolm noted that he was “concerned” with how the two prior meetings were held and that even though he and other State Board of Elections members may not agree on certain issues, “We debate it. We grow through our process.”
He told the board members to share information that they have in advance and said that Hodges, a 27-year veteran, was an expert to be relied upon.
“I strongly encourage you to be cordial, cooperative and transparent as you consider making decisions that effect the people – whether they are college students, veterans or people who live in temporary housing. That is very important,” Malcolm said.
Referring to the controversies and the national press, Malcolm said, “Some of this may have played out different [with] maybe a different approach.”
Howard agreed, adding that “how you go about it also colors the substance of how people will receive” any actions taken.
“You are going to pull this together. We know you will,” Howard said. “I’m just glad you have some smaller elections to get your feet on the ground.”