Appalachian State University may not have an early voting site on its main campus this general election, despite arguments from local and state elections officials that it would be more convenient for a younger voting crowd.
The N.C. State Board of Elections in Raleigh on Thursday denied an appeal from Watauga County Board of Elections member Kathleen Campbell, who presented the state board a different early voting plan than what a majority on the three-member Watauga board approved last month. The majority plan includes five early voting sites – with one about a half-mile walk or so from campus – but nothing on ASU proper.
That’s a bad idea, Campbell asserted.
“The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits such an abridgment of this specific group of voters,” she wrote to the state board.
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Gerry Cohen, recently retired special counsel to the N.C. General Assembly, supported Campbell’s cause with his own letter to the board. “The majority of Watauga County’s voting age population (students, faculty and staff) are on campus during weekdays,” wrote Cohen, “and are in walking distance of the Plemmons Student Union,” the early voting site Campbell proposed.
Elections records show Watauga County has the highest percent of student voters of any of North Carolina’s 100 counties.
“It is as if the goal of the (prevailing) plan was to inconvenience the majority of the voters,” Cohen said.
But state board member Paul Foley pointed out that the next-nearest early voting site approved by the Watauga Board is less than a mile from campus.
“The university has put dorms that are 0.6 miles away from the Student Center, but somehow your contention is that by putting a voting location 0.6 miles away from the Student Center, that somehow that disenfranchises students?” Foley said.
With college students more likely to be first-time voters, advocates such as Campbell have been sensitive to any perceived obstructions they might encounter – even walking distance, in this case.
Efforts to smooth the path for college-age voters grew more defensive in 2013, when the N.C. General Assembly passed a sweeping voting bill that will require voters to show photo ID at the polls starting in 2016. College ID cards will not be accepted, and with that change occurring under a GOP-controlled legislature, Democrats have contended it was a strength move to make voting less accessible to young people, who are more likely to favor Democrats.
The voting law also canceled one’s ability to register to vote at early voting locations.
While a federal judge this month sided against groups including the NAACP and college students in a legal challenge against the myriad voting changes, newly filed appeals – including from the NAACP – are keeping that challenge alive.
UNC-Chapel Hill will have an early voting site this election; so will Wake Technical Community College.
ASU did have an early voting site in 2010. An attorney representing Campbell on Thursday told the state board that between the primaries of that year and 2014 (when the campus lacked an early voting site), early voting turnouts increased by about 40 percent in all age groups except 18-25, which saw a 12 percent decline.
Rhonda Amoroso, secretary of the state board, pointed out that she saw no affidavits from students who feel inconvenienced by the Watauga board’s majority plan.
Bill Aceto, secretary of the Watauga board, said he lives near campus and sees no problem with the approved scheme. “It’s very accessible,” he said.
But he agreed with a wish from the state board to expand early voting hours at the county’s most popular site, in downtown Boone and a half mile from campus. In a 4-1 vote, the state board approved a plan for Watauga’s board to operate that site – at the county’s administration building on King Street – from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during Oct. 27-31. The previous plan was 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Other early voting sites in that county will operate from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Amoroso said she wanted the Watauga board to report back on the success of those hours. She didn’t mince words when opining that low turnout is a bigger issue than voter obstruction.
“If we started to teach civics 101 and teach young people about their right to vote, when they’re starting in grade school, we might not have this issue of people not knowing how to vote, what to vote, anything about voting,” she said.
ASU will, however, have an Election Day voting site on campus.
Benjamin Brown writes for the NCInsider.com, a news service owned by The N&O.