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State board won't restore early voting site for Appalachian State campus

Posted August 21, 2014 5:27 p.m. EDT
Updated August 21, 2014 5:41 p.m. EDT

— The State Board of Elections voted 4-1 Thursday to reject a bid to reopen a Watauga County early voting location on Appalachian State University's campus for the fall general election.

Kathleen Campbell, the lone Democrat on Watauga County's three-member elections board, put forward the plan with the Appalachian State voting site as an alternative to the early voting plan approved by the board's two Republicans.

"We think there's no real substitute for having a site at ASU," said Bill Gilkeson, a Raleigh attorney who represented Campbell at Thursday's state board hearing. 

The dispute over locations was similar to an appeal from Campbell heard by the state board this spring. State board members turned back efforts to return early voting to Appalachian State then as well. 

Watauga County has been something a thorn in the side of state board officials, with discord among local elections officials there forcing the state to dispatch staff and state board members to iron out conflicts.

"Watauga has become our second home," state board Chairman Josh Howard joked Thursday. 

The Republican appointees to the local board stood by their decision to move an early voting location off Appalachian State's campus, while Campbell said it should be added to the other five sites.

The campus location is a polling site on Election Day but not during the early voting period. It is close – about 0.6 mile – to the downtown Boone location that handles the majority of early voting traffic during the elections. Democrats contend it's inconvenient for students, but Republicans say it offers greater access to the wider community. 

"I have problems with the ASU student union as a location," Watauga County elections board member Bill Aceto, a Republican, told the state board. "It's impossible to establish electioneering buffers. It's a very large building with multiple exits." 

State board member Maya Kricker, a Democrat, responded that there are many large buildings used across the state.

Other Republicans on the state board sharply questioned Gilkeson about the difference between the relatively short distance between the campus location and the downtown Boone location that was open during the primary. Members of the general public unconnected to the university might have problems finding the campus location, they suggested.

"Is it that your contention that any students or other (people) have been disenfranchised because there was no location at the college?" state board member Rhonda Amoroso, a Republican, asked Gilkeson. 

The lawyer responded, "We could contest that barriers had been erected to students." 

Amoroso shot back that Gilkeson had not presented any affidavits or other materials that showed a student had been denied the right to vote.

"I would not say that is a definite fact," Gilkeson said, pointing to a drop off in early voting among 18- to 25-year-olds between the 2010 and 2014 primaries.

"That's an indication of something," he said.

Amoroso and fellow Republican Paul Foley peppered Gilkeson with skeptical questions throughout the hearing. 

Democrats have argued that, between faculty, students and staff, more than half of the county's voting age population is on campus during weekdays. 

State board members did adjust Watauga County's early voting hours at the downtown Boone location so that it would run 12 hours per day, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., instead of from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. as included in the county's original plan. They offset that change by reducing hours at the four rural early voting sites, with county elections director Jane Ann Hodges saying she would like to let staff at those locations leave earlier in the day due to often adverse weather in October and November. 

The state board approved that adjusted plan 4-1, with Kricker voting against it. 

In other business: 

  • The state board heard six other cases in which one member of a local elections board appealed the early voting plan approved by two others. In most of those cases, the state board refused to overturn the local plan.

    "I have very, very substantial pause to start free-wheeling and dictating new plans on the fly from Raleigh," Howard told a board member from Wilson. 

    The state board is made up of three Republicans and two Democrats, and all local boards are made up of two Republicans and on Democrat. However, Kricker and fellow Democrat Joshua Malcolm sided with the board majority on several of those decisions. All of the board members expressed frustration with local boards for not working more closely together and avoiding these sorts of appeals.

    "It gets ridiculous," Kricker said. "I think people need to cooperate more." 
     
  • In one early voting case decided in favor of a local board majority, Howard, the chairman of the state board, objected to the tone of a letter signed by the two Republican members of the Lincoln County board. That letter criticized Kricker for blocking an earlier early voting plan submitted by the county. 

    The local board members, Wayne Mitchem and Charles Newman, said their initial plan was "rejected due to the self indulgent view of Major Kricker to believe she knows more about what is best for Lincoln County than we, the County BOE members." 

    The letter went on to take a shot at the General Assembly as well.

    "We understand the current law allows for a single State BOE member to have this power in regard to early voting plans ... That portion of the General Statute is inept and we understand the responsibility for that lies within the chambers of the General Assembly," the letter reads. 

    "If you're going to continue to submit plans like this to Raleigh, you're going to run out of friends here," Howard said. He went on to direct state board staff to tell Lincoln County that "we would expect a higher level of professionalism."