A Wake County Superior Court judge has sided with a group of Appalachian State University students who were miffed that there wasn’t an early voting site on campus this year.
Judge Donald Stephens on Monday kicked Watauga County’s plan back to the State Board of Elections for revision, ordered it to include “at least one” ASU early voting site, and agreed with the plaintiffs that the plan violated a constitutional provision against the discrimination of young voters.
“I think it’s a great victory for voting rights,” said Bill Gilkeson, attorney for the seven plaintiffs, five of whom are students. Elections records show Watauga County has the highest percentage of student voters of any county in the state, while the plaintiffs’ petition for judicial review noted students make up 34 percent of the county’s population.
“All credible evidence indicates that the sole purpose of that plan was to eliminate an early voting site on campus so as to discourage student voting and, as such, it is unconstitutional,” wrote Stephens in his order.
Stephens’ decision will not impact any other campuses that lost early voting sites this year, said Josh Lawson, spokesman for the State Board of Elections. However, if the state challenges Stephens’ decision in the state Court of Appeals, the ensuing decision would hold for other campuses, Lawson said. Both N.C. State University and Duke University lost campus early voting sites.
The Board of Elections is reviewing Stephens’ order with the attorney general’s office. If the order is not appealed, the elections board may call a special meeting to comply with it before early voting begins on Oct. 23, Lawson said.
Gilkeson said ASU had steady early voting access on campus from 2006 until 2013, which he observed was when the makeup of the Watauga County Board of Elections – and other county elections board across the state – changed with new appointments from Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
Ian O’Keefe, a 21-year-old ASU senior and plaintiff in the case, said the local board’s decision to cut the campus site was “disenfranchisement of student voters” and that he wanted to fight it in the courts.
On Monday, he said Stephens’ order “was a great decision that benefits the members of this community, students, anyone who works in the university, and anyone who wants to vote there.”
The county’s initial plan, submitted to and upheld by the State Board of Elections, had settled on five in-person early voting sites, including one about a half-mile from ASU. “It’s very accessible,” Watauga County Board of Elections Secretary Bill Aceto told the state board.
But the county board’s lone Democrat, Kathleen Campbell, wanted campus access continued. Citing population and voter data, she brought her early voting proposal to the Republican-dominated state board for consideration, but didn’t win approval. State board member Paul Foley agreed that the near-campus early voting site was sufficient, noting ASU had dorms the same distance from the school’s Plemmons Student Union, where early voting used to take place.
The case decided in court Monday followed the plaintiffs’ references to the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says the voting rights of citizens at least 18 years old “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”
Benjamin Brown writes for NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer.