By Jesse Wood
Feb. 25, 2014. Organized by the Republican members of the Watauga County Board of Elections, a drop-in session was held in downtown Boone on Monday night to discuss potential early voting sites in Watauga County for the primary election in May.
Several maps were unfolded on tables and an easel for attendees to reference the different voting districts and – schools, governmental buildings and fire departments that may house a one-stop polling precinct in the county – was set up. A box of thumbtacks was also present for people to plot their preferences.
The public workshop took place in the commissioners’ boardroom on West King Street and was scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m. For at least the first hour, a steady stream of constituents filled the room, but only two thumbtacks were placed on the maps. Board members stood around, entertained questions and listened to suggestions or thoughts from the public.
The workshop was announced at February’s board meeting last week to the enthusiasm of many who attended that meeting and who felt that more public input was needed before the selection of early voting sites. They also pressed for public comment period towards the end of each meeting, instead of, per policy, solely submitting written comments.
At that meeting, Kathleen Campbell, the lone Democrat on the three-member board, lauded her fellow board members for being more receptive to the citizens and offered suggestions of her own regarding one-stop proposals. It included seven early voting sites spread throughout the county with three of those in Boone, where the vast majority of registered voters reside.
Republicans Luke Eggers and Bill Aceto didn’t reveal any proposals of their own. At last week’s meeting, Aceto mentioned that he was going to wait until after listening to the public at the workshop before a resolution on early voting sites is drafted. Eggers and Aceto maintained that approach last night, too.
This was something that Watauga County Democratic Party Chair Diane Tilson found frustrating. In addition to calling the meeting a “free-for-all,” so to speak, Tilson said she expected to be able comment on the proposals from Aceto and Eggers – before they go up for a vote at the next meeting in less than two weeks.
The board doesn’t have much time before it must decide on locations for the primary because its next meeting is March 5 and, as Eggers noted, the state must receive unanimous resolutions for one-stop locations by March 14.
“If something doesn’t happen, I don’t think the state will be too happy,” Eggers said.
Watauga County Elections Director Jane Ann Hodges was on hand to discuss changes to impact the upcoming primary. She noted that a new law requires counties to provide the same cumulative total number of early voting hours each county offered for the May 2010 primary.
In 2010, Watauga County had a cumulative total of 272 hours: 113 hours at the Watauga County Board of Elections office; 89 hours at the Agricultural Conference Center; and 70 hours at the Plemmons Student Union. But because one week less of early voting exists and counties must meet the same number of hours, Hodges said, “Now what [the board wants] to do is go outside of this and find polling places out in the community, which is what we will have to do.”
Watauga County Republican Party Chair Anne-Marie Yates was among Republicans present at the drop-in session.
“I thought it turned out wonderful. I was glad to see representation of the community and I thought it was a great event,” Yates said.
When questioned, Yates added that she hoped this event would silence critics who felt there hadn’t been enough public input since Aceto and Eggers were sworn into office last summer.
“I certainly hope so,” Yates said. “They had ample opportunity to speak with each person on the committee and I felt the atmosphere was cordial.”
Ian O’Keefe, field director for the Watauga County Democratic Party, was also in attendance.
“I thought it went really well. We heard a diversity of views that we really haven’t seen on this issue. The public hasn’t been allowed to comment. I definitely think this is a step in the right direction,” O’Keefe said.
Still, O’Keefe said he was mainly disappointed that Aceto and Eggers expressed little interest in returning to an early voting site at the Plemmons Student Union on the campus of ASU. (During Aceto’s, Eggers’ and Campbell’s first meeting on the board in August 2013, among the first resolutions passed by the GOP members was the elimination of early voting on the campus of ASU.)
“I am hoping they will reconsider,” O’Keefe said.
The Watauga County Board of Elections next meets on Wednesday, March 5, at the commissioners boardroom in the Watauga County Administrative Building on West King Street.