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State sues to block App State early-voting site

Posted October 17, 2014 4:18 p.m. EDT
Updated October 18, 2014 3:47 p.m. EDT

— 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.