RALEIGH — County election boards in North Carolina shifted from blue to red this summer but little partisan change will come to the election process, says the new chairman for the State Board of Elections.
The guidance of nonpartisan, full-time staff very much tempers the drama of any change, said Josh Howard, the state chairman, in an interview during a two-day training conference for board members this week in Cary. It may disappoint a lot of folks that theres still a steady hand on the rudder.
Republicans now get two seats on each county board, as opposed to the Democrats one because the state elected Pat McCrory its first Republican governor in 20 years. Board members are supposed to assure voting takes place in compliance with the law. Decision-making should not be rooted in party politics, Howard reminded the board members in attendance.
But voting rights advocates say that some new GOP board members are bringing politics into play by making it harder for college students in some counties to vote.
The Watauga County elections board voted last week to move early voting sites and polling places off of the Appalachian State University campus. The move also combined three voting precincts into one for 9,000-voters.
In Forsyth County, board chairman Ken Raymond last week said he would move to shut down the voting site at Winston-Salem State .
And the Pasquotank County board voted to bar an Elizabeth City State University senior from running for City Council, ruling that an on-campus address couldnt be used to establish local residency. Meanwhile, the chairman of that countys Republican Party said he plans to challenge the voter registrations of more students.
Republican politics are driving the Watauga changes, said Kathleen Campbell, the lone Democrat on the Watauga board. The Republicans have come in and just rolled over anybody who objects to what theyre doing, she said.
Dylan Russell, the ASU student body president, said in a statement the boards decision will make it much more difficult for students to vote.
The new Republican board chairman, Luke Eggers, did not respond to a request for comment. He told the Winston-Salem Journal that consolidating the three voting precincts will ease confusion about which location is the right one to use.
This year, about half of the county board seats changed hands. Newcomers may not be aware of all the rules yet, said Aida Doss Havel, a former Wake County Board of Elections chair who spoke at the conference.
Havel declined to comment on the early voting site challenges. She said that instead of dwelling on the past, state and county boards should focus on teaching the new members their duties and obligations.
Voting bill a challenge
During the conference, board members learned about the limits on their allowed political involvement and the open meetings law, which calls for counties to keep accurate minutes of all meetings. But the State Board of Elections spent most the conference teaching attendees how to apply the recently signed election law in their locales, said Tracy Reams, the Orange County Board of Elections director.
The election law requires using state-issued IDs to vote, but does not allow students to use college IDs. It also cuts a week of early voting days but requires counties provide the same number of early voting hours as in 2010.
Itll be challenging to make the changes, Reams said.
Were going to make it work. Somehow well make it work.
An odd process
State political party chairs nominate County Board of Elections members every two years. Each party nominates three people per county. Then, the State Board of Elections appoints three per county 300 people in total always two from the governors party and one from the other.
Ive always said the whole process is kind of odd, said Michael Perry, the Durham County Board of Elections director. Theyre recommended by the party, but once they get on the board theyre not supposed to be a party person.
But that isnt necessarily negative, he said, as long as members enter their roles without party-based motivations. Some counties boards look for unanimous approval on all votes to assure one party isnt making all the decisions. So far, all Wake Countys votes have been unanimous, said chairman David Robinson.
When county boards of elections become partisan, they destroy the public confidence in the elections, Havel said. And that is why it is critically and vitally important that the boards of election be run in an open, transparent and nonpartisan manner.