County elections boards in NC challenging college student voting patterns

ablythe@newsobserver.comAugust 19, 2013 

Montravias King

Montravias King is an Elizabeth City State University senior who has been voting in Pasquotank County since he started school there four years ago.

The civic-minded student government leader has voted early in city, county, state and national elections in the Pasquotank County seat in northeastern North Carolina, always using his campus dorm address.

Now King wants to run for City Council in his college town and his campaign has drawn the attention of such national media figures as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a vocal critic of the sweeping North Carolina elections revisions signed into law last week.

Pete Gilbert, the Pasquotank Republican Party chairman, has tried to put a halt to King’s candidacy in a campaign that could test the scope of the state’s elections law changes. As voting site changes are proposed for other college campuses, the Eastern North Carolina incident also could test the extent to actions that voting rights advocates have described as a GOP-controlled effort to weaken turnout among young voters more likely to vote against them.

Gilbert argues that Elizabeth City State University students who live in campus dorms have not established residency for the purpose of voting. He contends a dorm room occupied for only part of the year is a temporary residence, and the county elections board, controlled by Republicans, agreed in a 2-1 vote on Aug. 13 to bar King from the city ballot. The chairman was expected to sign the order on Monday, opening a 48-hour window for appeal to the state Board of Elections.

Clare Barnett, an attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the Durham-based nonprofit organization representing King, argues the local board’s decision is based on a misapplication of the law and a well-established right of college students to vote in their college communities.

“Under the equal protection principles of the Constitution, you can’t treat college students different from other voters,” Barnett said.

Guy-Uriel Charles, founding director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics, underscored Barnett’s point, adding that cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and federal district courts and U.S. Court of Appeals have issued rulings to that effect.

A year after the voting age was lowered to 18 from 21 in this country, a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling held that the town of Hanover, N.H., could not bar a Dartmouth College student from voting because his parents lived in Hawaii and he planned to leave Hanover after graduation.

Doing so would mean that a student, or contract worker or any other person who knew they would be leaving the state could not vote in the state, but those with less precise plans could, the court ruled. Additionally, the court stated, a promise by a voter of an indefinite stay in New Hampshire did not necessarily produce “a more intelligent vote, especially in small communities.’’

More college sites challenged

King, a student leader in the state NAACP who hails from Snow Hill but has spent summer sessions at ECSU, has been active on campus and in community organizations such as the Food Bank of the Albemarle and the Elizabeth City Boys and Girls Club. He hopes to enlist others in his fight to raise awareness to what he perceives as an attempt to discourage voting on other college campuses. On Tuesday, NAACP state leaders and lawyers will be in Elizabeth City to investigate the situation.

“If we don’t stand up and do anything,” King said, “they’re going to do it more and more.”

Gilbert has filed other challenges against Elizabeth City State University students, charging that they are temporary residents who should not able to vote locally if they live on campus. In Pasquotank County, there are 1,345 voters registered in the campus precinct for Elizabeth City State, and, King said, a large campus turnout can have an impact on local election results.

Since Gilbert’s previous challenges, Gov. Pat McCrory took office in January and appointed a Republican majority to the state board, which seats members on the county boards.

Efforts to reach Gilbert on Monday were unsuccessful, but he told The Associated Press last week that he plans to “take this show on the road” and challenge the residency and voter registrations of students elsewhere.

According to a report in The Winston-Salem Journal, the newly appointed Republican head of the Forsyth County Board of Elections, Ken Raymond, said he planned to move at a meeting Tuesday to shut down the voting site at Winston-Salem State University.

The chairman said he planned to make the move after hearing talk that a professor had offered students extra credit for going to the polls, which he said was violation of a law barring someone from providing anything of value in exchange for votes. But he offered no proof such irregularities had occurred, according to The Winston-Salem Journal account.

Charles, the Duke University law professor, said other law professors were paying close attention to North Carolina after the elections law changes.

McCrory said last week in a YouTube statement that the new law would safeguard the election process. Others argue that the changes will lead to voter suppression.

The changes will require voters to show government-issued ID cards, and college IDs are not on the list.

Students fight ASU changes

At Appalachian State University in Boone, where the Republican majority on the Watauga County Board of Elections voted last week to eliminate an early voting site and election-day polling precinct on-campus, Dylan Russell, the student body president, said he and other students are hyper-aware of what’s happening across the state.

“I’m confused,” Russell said. “We study in our textbooks that our shared history of America is about expanding democracy. I find these issues to be deeply troubling.”

Russell said a professor of his highlighted one benefit to the challenges.

“He said it was a really cool moment to see college Republicans and college Democrats working together to bring voting to campus,” Russell said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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