Raleigh, N.C. — Rulings by the State Board of Elections on Monday to close early voting sites at Appalachian State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in favor of off-campus locations have some voting rights watchdogs crying foul.
Republican elections officials in both Watauga and Orange counties say the closures – they are now in effect only for the May 6 primary – aren't based on politics, maintaining that polling sites need to be distributed more evenly across their counties.
"When it seems like a county board would rather open a polling site on the moon than on campus to serve students and faculty, you have to wonder about the motivations," Allison Riggs, a voting rights attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said Tuesday.
The early voting site at the Appalachian State student union, for example, attracted thousands of voters every election since 2008, Riggs said.
"You're talking about a town in which 60 percent of the voters are located in a pretty narrow area," she said. "Counties need to know there needs to be a rational basis for this decision. They can’t just try to stick it to young voters, stick it to college students."
In Orange County, the elections board chose a smaller location on Franklin Street to replace the polling place at the Rams Head Dining Hall.
“When we see polling places that have traditionally been on college campuses moved away and seemingly for not any good reason, it’s very concerning," said Bob Phillips, state director of voting rights group Common Cause. "It makes one think there are other reasons for this that have to do more with politics than, again, the goal of making voting easy and accessible for everybody.”
Phillips said he has heard Republican-led elections boards in Cumberland, Guilford and Forsyth counties also are targeting polling sites on the campuses of Fayetteville State University, North Carolina A&T State University and Winston-Salem State University, respectively. Votes cast on all three campuses have historically favored Democratic candidates.
State Board of Elections Chairman Josh Howard, a Republican, said he doesn't see a concerted effort to make it harder for college students in North Carolina to vote.
"I see the boards, by and large, expanding early voting opportunities and pursuing that wherever they can," Howard said.
He pointed to his long opposition to an early voting site at North Carolina State University, noting that limited parking that makes it fairly inaccessible to people coming from off campus.
"Does that serve the broader community, or is there a location nearby that could serve both students and the broader community?" he said. "We need to rely on county boards to make those local assessments, but we also will look at the metrics and voters per hour and make sure that they’re not restricting students' hours or anyone else's hours to vote.”