Raleigh, N.C. — The State Board of Elections gave a boost Tuesday to college students interested in running for political office but turned aside an argument that forcing them to leave campus to vote was a hardship.
The board's moves and the decision by the Watauga County Board of Elections to back off of plans to shut down an Election Day precinct on the Appalachian State University campus slow down, for now, efforts by local Republican-controlled elections boards to make it tougher for student voters.
The Pasquotank County Board of Elections ruled last month that Montravias King, a senior at Elizabeth City State University, couldn't run for city council because his campus dormitory doesn't qualify as a permanent residence.
King's lawyer, Clare Barnett, argued that the county board's decision flies in the face of state and federal court decisions allowing students to vote in their college towns. Ruling that a dormitory isn't a permanent residence because students don't live there year-round is akin to ruling that military personnel who are deployed cannot vote where they are based, she said.
"There is no compelling government justification to treat (students) any differently than any other group of voters," said Barnett, with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. "The dormitory is Mr. King's chosen abode according to state law."
Pete Gilbert, who challenged King's candidacy, maintained that King provided only "superficial" evidence that he was a resident of Elizabeth City. He also said he wasn't challenging King's right to vote in town – King has voted there every year since 2009 – only his ability to run for office.
State elections board members chided Bonnie Godfrey, the Republican chairwoman of the Pasquotank County elections board, who said she relied on a statement from an Elizabeth City State official that dorms aren't considered permanent housing in reaching her decision to remove King's name from the ballot.
"I'm troubled when I look at the (local) order and the rationale for the order," said state board member Josh Malcolm, a Democrat.
The three Republican members of the state board joined with the two Democrats in a unanimous vote to overturn the Pasquotank County decision and reinstate King's candidacy.
College voters got a second chance to cheer when the Watauga County board told state officials that they would rescind a recent decision to consolidate the Appalachian State voting precinct into a a so-called "super precinct" of 9,000 voters, which is far larger than state law allows.
But the state board upheld by a 4-1 vote the Watauga County plan to shutter an early voting site on campus for this fall's municipal elections.
Luke Eggers, the Republican chairman of the county board, said the early voting site at the county elections office in Boone is about a half-mile from campus, and it doesn't make sense to have two sites so close to each other when only a few dozen people per day cast early ballots.
Kathleen Campbell, the lone Democrat on the Watauga County board, said the majority of early votes in the last two municipal elections have been cast at Appalachian State, and the demand for early voting is increasing. If the state board approved consolidating early voting into one site, she said, members should place the site in a renovated section of the student union at Appalachian State, noting that it provides better parking, handicapped accessibility and security.
"Mr. Eggers' one-stop implementation plan has no reasonable basis other than outright voter suppression," Campbell said, later adding that forces are aligning nationwide to try to keep students from the polls.
"They don't want students to vote, and they're trying to keep students from voting by making it inconvenient for them to vote," she said, never specifying who "they" are.
Eggers said the decision to close the campus early voting location was only for the fall municipal elections, saying the board hasn't started to look at its needs for the 2014 state and federal elections.