Early voting sites could move off area college campuses

mcassella@newsobserver.comJanuary 24, 2014 

Some Triangle college campuses could lose early voting sites as county election boards across the state seek to secure locations that meet new voting requirements.

The state’s new election law placed strict rules on early voting – shortening the period by a week while demanding sites offer the same number of hours, operate on identical schedules and provide both parking and curbside voting.

UNC-Chapel Hill students may be the first affected as the Orange County elections board is looking for an alternate site for the May primary. Kathy Knight, chairwoman of the Orange board, said parking and scheduling were problems with campus sites.

Meanwhile at Duke University, there are worries that students will lose their on-campus site for the 2016 general election. Duke won’t host a site for the primary, but it didn’t in the previous off-year election either.

The changes come at a contentious time for early voting sites on college campuses across the state. In August, the Watauga County Board of Elections voted to move Appalachian State University’s site off campus, and the Forsyth County board considered a similar move at Winston-Salem State University. Those efforts sparked widespread criticism that Republicans were trying to curb the student vote. Critics said it was part of a pattern that included requiring government-issued photo IDs to vote but not accepting student IDs.

“I do think the leadership from the Republican Party in this case has demonstrated a pretty hostile attitude toward students, and that seems to be seeping down into certain places,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a Durham group that advocates for election reform. “But there are other Republican members of boards of elections that recognize their duty is to the public and to the voters.”

Nothing to do with students

Tracy Reams, director of the Orange County Board of Elections, said moving the early voting location had nothing to do with the students.

She said there were a number of issues with the previous location at Rams Head Dining Hall, including difficulty with curbside voting and scheduling around football games and other campus events that require the use of parking decks.

The decision to move the site is still on hold as the board considers alternative locations, but final plans are due to the state by mid-March.

“What the outcome will be, I don’t know,” said Knight, the board chair. “No matter what we do, somebody’s not going to like it.”

The county has two other sites near campus, one in Chapel Hill and the other in Carrboro.

Still, Jacob Morse, vice president of the student body at UNC-CH, said not having an on-campus site makes it harder for students to vote.

“It’s a lot easier if you’re going in between classes,” he said. “If you live on campus – as 40 percent of students do – you don’t have a car, so you have to find a bus route, and there’s no guarantee that bus goes directly near some early voting spots off campus.”

Looking forward

The worry for campuses will soon become whether they can keep early voting sites for the 2016 general election.

David Robinson, chairman of the Wake County Board of Elections, said the preference would be to keep using existing sites, including those at N.C. State University and Wake Tech Community College.

But Gunther Peck, a history and public policy professor at Duke who worked to bring early voting on campus in 2008, said losing on-campus voting there is a real worry for 2016.

The closest off-campus sites for both Duke and NCSU are about 2 miles off campus.

Bill Brian, chairman of the Durham County Board of Elections, said the decisions about where to place early voting sites are “purely logistical and purely about cost.”

“We could put early voting sites all over the county,” he said. “But then we’d have people sitting there all day with no one coming in to vote.”

Peck said in the May primary election in 2008, before Duke hosted its own early voting site, 11 percent of registered voters on campus turned out to vote. By November, when an early voting location had moved on campus, he said the number had jumped to 87 percent.

The size of the electorate on campus, the number of those registered, also increased from 1,000 to 4,000, he said.

Peck said he hoped that Duke students would make the effort to vote, but that turnout would still be “highly curtailed” by the change.

“It would be dramatic,” he said. “There’s no question it would be dramatic.”

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