State sues to block App State early-voting site

Posted October 17, 2014
Updated October 18, 2014

— Attorneys for the state have asked the North Carolina Supreme Court to block an early-voting site on the campus of Appalachian State University in Watauga County.

Late Friday afternoon, the North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed, issuing a temporary stay against the site until at least Tuesday and ordering both sides to submit arguments. 

It’s the latest step in a long-running battle over access to early voting for college students in Boone, a battle that’s also being fought on other campuses around the state.

Watauga County leans Republican, while Boone and Appalachian State voters tend to vote Democratic.

The Republican-dominated county elections board voted to take away the early voting site on the Appalachian State campus, arguing that students could use an early voting site in downtown Boone instead, while the other four early voting sites in the county should be evenly distributed geographically.

The population of Watauga County is not evenly distributed geographically. Students at Appalachian State make up one-third of the county’s population. Thirty-five percent of all early voters in Watauga County in 2012 cast their votes on campus at the school’s Plemmons Student Union, which has been an early voting site since 2006. It’s been the overwhelming site of choice for early voters between 18 and 25 in the past three elections.

After the county board’s plan was upheld by the Republican-dominated state elections board in August, a group of registered Watauga County voters sued the state board, asking the judge to overturn the approved plan and restore an early voting site to the campus.

Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens agreed with the plaintiffs on Monday, ordering the state board to draw up a new plan including an on-campus site.

“The early voting plan submitted by the majority members of the Watauga County Board of Elections was arbitrary and capricious,” Stephens wrote in his order. “All the 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.”

State attorneys asked Stephens to stay his order, but Stephens refused.

On Thursday, the state asked the North Carolina Supreme Court for an emergency stay and appeal. The state’s argument is that Stephens overstepped his authority by striking down the previously approved early voting plan and that changing the plan 10 days before the start of early voting will cause confusion and chaos for voters and elections officials. This, according to the motion, will cause “irreparable harm” unless the high court steps in to stop it.

Sabra Faires, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, called the argument “absurd.”

“They can’t show there’s any harm to the state board by having a site on the ASU campus. There’s no harm, much less irreparable harm,” Faires told WRAL News. “It’s less confusing to have the site at its customary location than to move it.”

Faires added that this is the first case she can remember in which the state’s Supreme Court has been asked to rule on an early voting site.

“They clearly are intent on keeping an early voting site off ASU campus, and they’re going to extraordinary lengths to do it,” she said.

The standard appeal process would be to go first to the Court of Appeals. However, the state argues that any decision by that court would likely be appealed to the Supreme Court anyway. Given the short time frame before early voting, the state says the Supreme Court should simply take over the case now.

No one at the State Board of Elections was available to explain why the state had appealed to stop the Appalachian State site. Spokesman Josh Lawson said, “The decision whether and how to appeal is ultimately the [attorney general's].”

However, attorney general spokeswoman Noelle Talley said that wasn’t the case. “Attorneys with our office filed the appeal at the request of their client, the [State Board of Elections],” she explained.

Asked for a statement, elections board Executive Director Kim Strach said only, “We will continue to give full effect to Judge Stephens' order unless directed to do otherwise by our appellate courts".

Lawson said the board has contacted Appalachian State to request recommendations for possible voting sites.

Vice Chancellor Hank Foreman confirmed that contact. “The university has responded to this request by providing information about two locations, Legends and the Plemmons Student Union, which have been used as voting sites in the recent past. We await the SBOE’s decision and are fully prepared to cooperate with the SBOE and the Watauga County Board of Elections to comply with the court’s order,” Foreman said via email.

Foreman said the county board of elections would not be charged a fee for the use of either facility.

It’s one more chapter in the contentious story of voting in Watauga County, where the Republican-led elections board has approved a series of changes that would make it more difficult for students to vote. Some of those changes, including a bid to combine the campus into a super-precinct with more than 9,000 voters, have been rejected by the State Board of Elections as a violation of election law.


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  • miseem Oct 21, 2014

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    Could be because many of them will be spending 3/4 of their time in that community for 4 years. Some will be spending all 12 months. Which location will have more direct impact on their daily life, Boone and Watauga County or Salisbury and Rowan County? And in addition t students, many contract and temporary workers may stay in a county for just a few months. Other people may be planning to move into a new house being built in a neighboring county in 6 months. Should they not be allowed to vote for local officials? Where do you make the cut off? If the intent of voting laws was to make sure voters were going to stay in a location full time for years on end, the laws would require longer residency. And certified statements of intent to stay in that location for at least 2 years.

  • ncmedic201 Oct 21, 2014

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    Many of us in public safety work on election day. We work 12 and 24 hour shifts that prevent us from making it to the polls. But thanks for wanting to take away early voting from us.

  • kre2 Oct 21, 2014

    You always hear about a poor turnout for voting. Now you have political groups actively reducing that number even more. How transparent can you get. The college should rent a couple of buses and drive the entire campus to vote. That would serve them right.

  • 42_wral_mods_suck_i'm_gone Oct 21, 2014

    If you are in long lines on election day be sure to thank the GOP.

  • floydthebarber Oct 21, 2014

    Republicans are doing their best to try and suppress the youth vote in NC for obvious reasons- their outdated messaging doesn't resonate with a new generation who is much more tolerant of LGBT rights, minority rights, women's health issues... closing early voting on App State campus only slows the inevitable march of progress. It can't stop it :)

  • Matt Wood Oct 21, 2014
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    The only justification you need is to look back when it was all done on a single day. Low turnout, people who couldn't get off work to vote, extremely long lines... All of the changes made to include early voting and same-day registration were to promote more voting, which then led to record voter turnout. We should want MORE people to vote, not less! And anything that makes it harder to vote should be scrutinized for what it is - voter suppression. Otherwise, why do something that makes it harder for people to vote? What exactly is the motivation there?

  • glarg Oct 21, 2014

    The Constitution clearly establishes *a day* in November for voting.
    There is a compelling interest in people educating themselves about races and hearing all of the information before voting. Otherwise why not just allow voting in July? The candidates were all set by then.

    In the case of the elderly or shut ins or people out of the area, there is a an actual need for absentee ballots.

    But these mini-elections held well before the Constitutionally established date have no real justification.

  • Rangerdavid Oct 20, 2014

    who on the Court issued the Stay???

  • notexactly Oct 20, 2014


  • Terry Watts Oct 20, 2014
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