NC Elections Board to hear cases that touch on student voting rights

ablythe@newsobserver.comSeptember 2, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO:

    The state Board of Elections meets 1 p.m. Tuesday at its offices, 441 N. Harrington St., Raleigh.

    Student groups plan to gather 12:30 p.m. outside the offices for a demonstration.

— As college students across the country settle into new routines that the start of a semester typically bring, many in North Carolina are complaining of feeling unsettled about their voting rights.

Since mid-August, when Gov. Pat McCrory signed broad revisions to North Carolina’s elections law, local elections boards in several counties – including Pasquotank and Watauga – have initiated changes that college students are fighting as attempts to suppress their votes.

Three cases are scheduled to be heard by the state Board of Elections on Tuesday afternoon.

Students and civic groups including NCPIRG, Common Cause, Ignite NC, NCSU Student Power Union, Democracy NC and Rock the Vote will gather outside the meeting to urge the board to reverse local county board decisions that protest organizers describe as ones “that make it harder for young people to vote and participate in our democracy.”

The cases on the state board’s agenda include:

• Montravias King, an Elizabeth City State University student disqualified from seeking a city council seat, is fighting a ruling by the Republican-controlled Pasquotank County Board of Elections. In an August decision, the eastern North Carolina county’s board upheld a challenge by Richard “Pete” Gilbert, the county’s Republican Party chairman, claiming King could not use his on-campus dorm address to establish residency in a county where he had been registered to vote for four years.

Clare Barnett, the attorney from the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice representing King, argues that there is a long-established right of college students to vote in their college communities. Under equal protection principles of the Constitution, Barnett argues, college students cannot be treated differently from other voters.

• The Watauga County Board of Elections in Boone voted to close an early voting and general election polling place at Appalachian State University. The county board, with Republicans in control, limited early voting to one site in Boone. The board also combined three precincts into one, creating the state’s third-largest voting precinct at a site that has only 35 parking spaces to accommodate the 9,300 voters. The site, according to students, is about a mile from campus on a road with no sidewalks.

During the 2012 elections, when Republicans swept the elections with wins in the governor’s office and majorities in both NC General Assembly chambers, there were at least 16 early voting sites on college campuses.

On-campus sites included: UNC-Asheville, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro, N.C. State University, Appalachian State University, East Carolina University, N.C. Central University, Winston-Salem State University, North Carolina A & T University, Duke University, Johnston County Community College, two sites at Wake Tech Community College, one at Stanly County Community College and another at Cape Fear Community College.

Additionally, 10 more sites for early voting were within at least a half-mile of a college campus throughout the state, according to elections data.

In Winston-Salem, the Republican who heads the Forsyth County elections board had proposed to close an early voting site at Winston-Salem State University. But after much publicity about his proposal, the county elections board chairman decided to delay any decision until next year after more study.

Since 2008 – when young voters were among the Democrats biggest supporters, with the under-30 set endorsing then-candidate Barack Obama 2-1 – student identification cards have become a focus for Republicans pushing for voter ID laws.

Pennsylvania, Kansas, Wisconsin and Texas and other states have tried to limit, or ban, the use of student IDs as voter identification. In Florida, lawmakers tried to limit “third party” organizations, including student groups, from registering new voters.

Under the elections law revisions in North Carolina, student IDs are not among the list of acceptable identification cards.

Advocates of voter ID laws claim such measures are needed to make sure people voting are who they say they are and have the right to vote.

But critics have highlighted the limited number of voter fraud cases across the country. Instead, they describe the ID laws and other elections revisions as attempts to squelch a young voting bloc.

After filing lawsuits in federal and state court in North Carolina challenging the state’s elections law revisions, the state chapter of the NAACP also is asking the U.S. Attorney General to launch an investigation.

In a letter dated Aug. 21, state NAACP President the Rev. William J. Barber II drew Holder’s attention to changes occurring statewide to the county boards.

Barber described some of the revisions that will be subject to the state board meeting Tuesday as part of “what appears to be coordinated attacks against minority voters.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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