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‘Call That Voter Fraud:’ Rural Wataugans – The Disenfranchised Citizens of the Popular Early Voting

Photo by Jesse Wood

By Jesse Wood

Nov. 4, 2012. Add this to the reasons why High Country conservatives look forward to governor-hopeful Pat McCrory taking the helm in Raleigh come Jan. 1, 2013; Republicans would control the majority on the local elections boards.

If that were to happen, the locations of early-voting sites in Watauga, which have heavily favored college students from ASU and residents from the Town of Boone, could be altered in future elections.

The governor appoints five members to the bi-partisan N.C. State Board of Elections – traditionally three members of his or her party and two from the opposing party.

Then the N.C. State Board of Elections appoints three members to each of the local county election boards in a similar fashion – two members from the party controlling the state board and one from the opposing party. 

Democrats have held the governorship for the past 20 years, and this is perhaps the single-most reason that a one-stop site has existed at ASU since 2008, even though the Watauga County Courthouse in downtown is just a few blocks away from campus.

“It is all politics. Every bit of it is politics. I don’t care if you talk to Democrats or Republicans; the whole thing is politics,” said Watauga County Commissioner Chairman Nathan Miller, who is a Republican. “Sites are chosen solely because of politics – not because of convenience of voters. Democrats are in control and the students heavily favor them … and Boone favors them and the records back that up. [That’s why] they’ve routinely only had early voting sites in the Town of Boone.”

In the past two presidential elections and the May primary, Democrats of Watauga County have had a distinct advantage during early voting because of one-stop sites located in downtown and on the campus of ASU – simply because of the ease that residents of Boone and college students, both historically liberal, have at getting to the polls compared to those who are typically more conservative and live on the outskirts of the county.

In 2008, more than 70 percent of the nearly 19,000 one-stop and mail-in absentee voters lived in Boone, according to Civitas Vote Tracker, and that hasn’t changed during this election either, where more than 70 percent of the 13,000-plus one-stop and absentee voters as of Nov. 1 that have Boone mailing addresses. Of course, where these voters work might skew these numbers. For example, ASU has more than 2,800 full-time staff and faculty employees. Boone is also the most populated area in the High Country.

The topic of Watauga’s rural population being disenfranchised voters once again made the rounds on A Watauga Conservative, a local political blog, after last Tuesday’s emergency vote, which wasn’t approved unanimously and therefore wasn’t enacted, to extend early voting hours at the courthouse and ASU. However, hours of operation at the Foscoe precinct were not on the docket to be changed.

“Democrats want to depress the rural vote while extending hours in town polls where they think they have an advantage,” a regular blogger on A Watauga Conservative wrote in a post, adding sarcastically, in reference to a sensational headline by High Country Press, “Some might call it ‘voter fraud.’” 

Another person commented, “Why do they have subjective early voting in the first place? The fraud is that not all the polls are open if one is open. That this is unfair cannot be denied.”

The issue of citizens in town having a greater advantage making it out to the polls was also discussed earlier in the year after the May 8 primary that featured Amendment One/Marriage Protection Amendment, which was not voted for by the majority of Wataugans – just barely.

About two weeks after that primary, Madeline K. Carter, an unaffiliated conservative, wrote a “Letter to the Editor” of High Country Press stating that in a close election, the advantage that ASU students and Boone residents have make a “tremendous difference.”

“Consider the county results in regard to the marriage amendment. The county results were very, very close. Even with the considerable voting advantage (and registering opportunities) of at least several days for the town and ASU students, who were against the proposed Amendment by a large margin, the rural turnout for the Amendment, which was significant, but for only one day, came very, very close to offsetting the town and ASU numbers,” Carter said. “Again, what would have happened if rural voters had more than one day to cast their ballots and other sites in their precincts available?”

On July 3, Jean DiCola, Nate DiCola, Nell Adams and Deborah Greene met with the Watauga County Board of Elections to discuss this urban/rural voting issue. (Carter was sick and could not attend.)   

Among the pamphlet of data, the packet mentioned that urban voters had “12.5 days of easy access to vote and register if necessary” while rural voters had “one day of easy access to vote [Election Day] and could not register, if necessary” for the May 8 primary. It also noted that urban voters had a 10 to 1 advantage – 2,675,23 hours of easy access to vote while rural voters only had 260,793 hours of easy access to vote.

During that primary, three one-stop locations were open – the Boone Council Chambers on Blowing Rock Road, the Plemmons Student Union at ASU and the Watauga County Administration Building in downtown Boone.  

On a version of that packet presented to the Watauga County Board of Elections in July and given to High Country Press on Friday afternoon, Jean DiCola wrote, “The current 3 days allotted to the Foscoe [Fire Department in the 2012 general election] does not address the discrimination against rural voters.”

(Of the three one-stop locations for the current election, the Foscoe Fire Department was open for three days as compared to the Watauga County Courthouse for 13 days and ASU for 10 days.)

Stella Anderson, one of the two Democrat-appointed members on the Watauga County Board of Elections, said she recommended the Foscoe Fire Department site for the current election.  

She said that she and Rusty Henson, the other Democrat-appointed member on the board, aren’t opposed to early-voting sites in the rural communities, but that it is a challenge to find a balance in selecting sites that are convenient and will be utilized by a sizable number of residents.

Watauga County Board of Elections Director Jane Hodges said the one rural one-stop site that had been in effect in the past – the Mountaineer Ruritan in Cove Creek in the 2008 general election – was not utilized. Four years ago, only 600 citizens early voted in Cove Creek during one week of one-stop voting, and this year, the Foscoe Fire Department only had 599 voters during the three-days of one-stop voting.

(Speaking in the middle of the last day of one-stop voting on Friday, Hodges said that 458 voters had voted at the Foscoe precinct and added, “Well, I am happy with that for three days. We would hope, by the end of the day, it would be 600.”)

Chairman Nathan Miller of the Watauga County Commissioners said that it takes time for one-stop voting to catch on at new locations.

“Well, it takes a couple election cycles for anything to catch on. It’s at Foscoe this year, and I appreciate them doing it. We asked them to move some out in the county,” Miller said, adding that he would like to see one in every precinct and at the very least, one at each side of the county.

Of course, Miller understands that having more precincts costs more money, and he said he didn’t know if the cash was available for numerous sites scattered throughout the county. Aside from the money, Miller is also aware of the logistics it takes to hold a one-stop location for an extended time.

When Hodges of the Watauga County Board of Elections was asked what it takes to run a one-stop site, she mentioned that one of the problems is it “costs a lot of money.”  She also mentioned that the site must have internet and be a public building.

“We just can’t go out to someone’s home and say we are going to be doing voting,” Hodges said.

Miller mentioned that even though a lot of people from out in the county commute into Boone for work, there is also a significant number of folks that don’t. For example, he said some people who reside in Sugar Grove work in Mountain City, some in Foscoe work in Avery County, folks who live and work in Blowing Rock don’t leave Blowing Rock and some of those that live in Deep Gap work in the Watauga County Industrial Park and never drive all the way through town.

“In a perfect world, I would like to see every precinct have early voting, but in an imperfect world, I would like to see at least one on each side of the county,” Miller said.

Although the Watauga County Commissioners fund the Watauga County Board of Elections, Miller said that his board has “no say” in the matter because the election’s board decides on where one-stop sites are located.

He did add, though, that he would “love to talk about” scattering sites out in the county in the future, especially if the governor election swings in the Republican direction, and that perhaps that extra funding could be committed for the purpose of those sites.

“I don’t know if we [the board of commissioners] would or wouldn’t. If we gave money for a certain purpose, we would expect our money back, but I would love to talk about it,” Miller said.

One-Stop Voting Totals 

Watauga County Board of Elections Director Jane Hodges was too busy on Friday afternoon handling one-stop voting and preparing for Election Day to breakdown the history of one-stop voting per early voting site.

However, the 2008 breakdown is available in the “2012 Election Guide for Watauga County” and Hodges gave the 2012 general election totals to High Country Press on Saturday afternoon.

2008 One-Stop Totals Per Location

Watauga County Courthouse – 4,318

Agricultural Extension Center – 3,553

Boone Council Chambers – 2,837

ASU – 6,447

Mountaineer Ruritan in Cove Creek – 600

2012 One-Stop Totals

ASU – 5,326

Foscoe Fire Department – 599

Watauga County Courthouse – 9,393