By Jesse Wood
Oct. 17, 2014. As the State Board of Elections (SBOE) works with officials at Appalachian State University and the Watauga County Board of Elections to prepare for one-stop voting on the campus of ASU, the SBOE is also appealing Wake County Superior Judge Donald Stephens’ order instructing the SBOE to include an early-voting site on the college campus.
With early voting set to begin across North Carolina on Thursday, Oct. 23, these legal proceedings must move quickly.
This issue all began in July, when the Republican majority on the Watauga County Board of Elections voted to exclude an early voting site on the campus of ASU. Because the vote wasn’t unanimous – with Democrat Kathleen Campbell opposing any plan without an early-voting site at ASU – the matter went before the State Board of Elections, which also has a Republican majority.
The SBOE adopted the majority plan in a 4-1 vote in August.
In September, a group of local Democrats – Stella Anderson, Pam Williamson, Marianne Clawson, Alaina Doyle, Lauren Larue Joyner, Ian O’Keefe and David Sabbaugh – filed a lawsuit against the State Board of Elections seeking a judicial review of the adopted plan it claimed was discriminatory to college-aged voters and violated the state and federal constitutions.
Earlier this month, a judge in Wake County Superior Court granted an expedited review of the plan in light of upcoming election just around the corner.
Then last week, Stephens made his order remanding the plan back to the SBOE and instructing the state board to include a one-stop site on the college campus.
Then yesterday, the N.C. Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the SBOE, requested the courts issue a stay of the order to include an early-voting site on the college campus. If granted, this would mean that the courts would look at the matter after the general election.
“With early voting scheduled to begin on [Thursday, Oct. 23, the State Board of Elections] would be irreparably harmed by enforcement of the order directing it to adopt a new early voting plan for Watauga County,” according to Thursday’s motion requesting a stay pending appellate review by the N.C. Attorney General’s Office.
This motion was denied on Thursday by Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens, wrote in his order: “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.”
In addition, the N.C. Attorney General’s Office also filed a notice of appeal to the N.C. Court of Appeals – and the N.C. Supreme Court to takeover the case – with regards to Stephens’ remanding the Watauga County early voting plan to the State Board of Elections with instructions to include an early voting site on the campus of Appalachian State University.
This matter hasn’t been addressed yet.
“Everything is very much in flux,” Pam Williamson, one of the petitioners seeking an early-voting site on the campus, wrote in an email on Friday. “SBOE is working with ASU and with the local Board to go ahead and make preparations for an early voting site on campus … From their comments, there doesn’t seem to any problem with getting the site up and running.”
Williamson added that she believed that Bailey & Dixon, the law firm representing the Watauga County Voting Rights Task Force, an arm of the Watauga County Democratic Party, and the petitioners were also ordered to file a brief by Monday at 5 p.m.
“As to what happens after that, I have absolutely no idea,” Williamson wrote.
With early voting set to begin shortly, Watauga County Board of Elections Director Jane Ann Hodges said she also doesn’t have a clue what is going to happen in the days leading up the start of early voting. Hodges added that she is learning the meaning of the word “patience” as her office waits for the courts to rule.
But no matter how the courts decide, Hodges said her office will be able to handle it – whether that be early voting on campus or not.
On Thursday, SBOE Executive Director Kim Strach sent an email to Watauga County Board of Elections Chair Luke Eggers, one of the two Republicans on the board, and carbon copied the rest of the board members and Hodges. This letter was obtained from SBOE spokesman Josh Lawson.
Strach noted that Stephens ordered the majority plan back to the SBOE with the instructions to include a one-stop site at the college.
“I invite you to identify in writing any specifics you would like the State Board to review as it proceeds to enforce Judge Stephens’ order. Due to the time-sensitive and developing nature of this matter, it may be the State Board’s determination is made in an emergency meeting. Accordingly, please transmit your response no later than 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 15,” Strach wrote.
Strach ended the email by saying, “The Attorney General has filed a notice of appeal, however, the State Board continues in good faith to give effect to the present order, pending any alternative guidance from the courts.”