State elections board reverses Pasquotank decision, backs Watauga ruling

ablythe@newsobserver.comSeptember 3, 2013 

— Under the glare of a national media spotlight, the North Carolina Board of Elections ruled on two cases Tuesday that offered a glimpse of where the five members appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory stand on the changed electoral landscape.

The board members unanimously agreed that an Elizabeth City State University student can run for local office, reversing a decision by the Republican-controlled Pasquotank County elections board.

But in a 4-1 vote, the state board brushed aside an attempt to overturn a Watauga County elections board decision to close an early-voting site on the Appalachian State University campus for the coming municipal election.

The decisions came amid extensive state and national attention to rulings and proposals by new Republican-controlled county boards that critics describe as attempts to squelch the under-30 vote.

“They’re not leaning in favor of access for voters when they have discretion,” said Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, an election advocacy group. “But in the cases where the law’s very clear and there’s case-law precedent, they don’t want to look extreme so they don’t go beyond that.”

Demonstrators gathered outside elections board offices Tuesday and filled an overflow room to sit in on and listen to the debate about the cases from Pasquotank and Watauga counties.

Montravias King, the Elizabeth City State University senior whose case has been highlighted in several broadcasts by Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, said after the hearing that he never thought his bid for local office would have thrust him into the spotlight it did.

“I never would have thought I would end up on the Rachel Maddow show talking about voter suppression in North Carolina,” he said to a bank of media cameras and applauding supporters.

Only minutes earlier, the state board had sided with Clare Barnett, the attorney from Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented King

“This is a case about whether college students across the state can be denied the right to vote,” Barnett told the state board members.

State board members praised the parties involved in the Pasquotank challenge for being civil with one another.

But they criticized the Watauga County elections board for salty language and questionable behavior in a recent board meeting that was posted on YouTube and distributed widely on social media sites.

Friction in Watauga

That argument spilled over into the Tuesday hearing – with Kathleen Campbell, the lone Democrat on the Watauga board, telling state board members that the newly appointed Republicans had violated open meetings law and gathered without her to discuss new policies and procedures that, according to her, were part of a statewide effort to suppress a bloc of voters younger than 30.

“I’m coming to you for help,” Campbell said. “I think we need help.”

The Watauga issue before the state board Tuesday was limited to the decision to close the early voting site on the Appalachian State University campus for the municipal elections this fall.

The county board, with Republicans in control, limited early voting to one site in Boone. Watauga Republicans also have put forward a plan that would combine three precincts into one for the next general election, creating the state’s third-largest voting precinct at a site that has only 35 parking spaces to accommodate 9,300 voters. The site, according to students, is about a mile from campus on a road with no sidewalks. That plan, though, was pulled back by the Watauga board for more consideration and was not part of the state elections board agenda on Tuesday.

Talk of further consideration drew more concerns from Campbell, who told state board members she had not been informed by her fellow Watauga board members about a new proposal up for discussion.

“You guys have got to start getting along,” Josh Howard, the Republican at the helm of the state board, told the Watauga county elections board members at Tuesday’s hearing. “Y’all are all in this together, and we don’t want to see you guys on YouTube again.”

Campbell said Tuesday she viewed the changes being proposed as part of a nationwide force to keep students from the polls.

“They don’t want students to vote, and they’re trying to keep students from voting by making it inconvenient for them,” Campbell said.

Pasquotank student backed

King, the Elizabeth City State student, registered to run for the Elizabeth City board on July 19 when he was a student at the historically black college in the Pasquotank County seat.

A senior who has been active in the local NAACP and other civic activities in his college community, King used his on-campus address when he filed to run for office.

Richard “Pete” Gilbert, chairman of the Pasquotank County Republican party, challenged King’s bid, arguing that a dorm address was a temporary residence that disqualified King from seeking a seat in the Elizabeth City ward where his campus home was.

King, who hails from Snow Hill in Eastern North Carolina, left his family home after high school and moved into campus housing at Elizabeth City State, where he lived during the school year and also during some summer sessions. Since 2009, King has used his campus housing address for voting purposes and has voted early in city, county, state and national elections since then.

It was this summer, after the state legislature adopted broad revisions to elections law, that Gilbert challenged King’s eligibility to seek office.

Gilbert has challenged dozens of Elizabeth City State college students on voter rolls in Pasquotank as having temporary residences that prohibit them from voting in the college town where they spend many months of the year.

Gilbert pointed out Tuesday that he was not challenging King’s eligibility to vote – only his ability to run for office.

Barnett argued that a decision that barred King from running for office in the ward where he lives also, de facto, rendered him ineligible to vote.

North Carolina case law and U.S. Supreme Court decisions have upheld the rights of students to use their dorm addresses for voting purposes and for running for office.

Josh Howard, the Republican who leads the state elections board, said that “while this is a student challenge” it was not “dissimilar” from challenging any of the military base residents in North Carolina who sought office in their communities. He argued that trying to abridge a military base member’s bid for office would not sit well with him.

Maja Kricker, a Democrat on the state board, praised King for being active in his community as she voted to reverse the Pasquotank board decision that would have barred him from running for local office..

“How much more skin in the game can you have,” Kricker asked. “I wish all people were involved in their local community.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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