While many people are attune to the presidential race, there are countless local issues, which also deserve significant attention. In North Carolina, the months of June and July are devoted to county Boards of Election working out early voting plans, including deciding the number of hours, what polling locations should be open, and what days they should be open. Since the governor is a Republican, and the governor determines partisan control of the Boards of Election, each county’s Board of Election is made up of two Republican appointees, and one Democratic appointee. Boards are tasked with coming up with a proposal that appeases all three members, but if the vote on the final plan is 2-1, the minority member may submit a minority report to the State Board of Elections (composed of three Republicans and two Democrats), where the SBOE is tasked with making a final decision (which could then bounce around the courts for a little while).
Since 2012, the General Assembly has passed a law shrinking the early voting period from seventeen days, down to ten days, while also mandating that county boards offer the same number of hours from a comparable election. That means in the 2016 General Election, county boards will be working to offer the same number of hours as the 2012 General Election, in seven less days.
While this should not be a partisan issue, there has been significant disagreement among Democrats and Republicans about what should be done about the early voting period. I’d like to turn my focus on Watauga County, my home county in the mountains, as well as Forsyth County, which has become my home during college, and where I’m a registered voter.
Watauga County has been the source of much litigation about voting since the passage of the early voting restrictions from the General Assembly. Much of this conflict is over the use of Appalachian State’s Student Union as a polling location. Appalachian State represents about 20,000 students, in a county of about 50,000 (unknown how many of those students are registered voters in Watauga County/on campus, but it’s clear that students are a key constituency in Watauga County). It would make sense that these students would be entitled to a convenient voting location on campus. The university has agreed, and until the election of Pat McCrory in 2012, and the flip of the composition of the BoEs, the university has graciously provided use of the Student Union as both an Election Day location, and as an early voting site. For the 2013 municipal elections, talk began of eliminating the early voting site, and moving the election day site to Legends (a night club on the edge of campus).
The logic of the Republican appointed board was that there are two early voting sites in town, which are about a twenty minute walk from campus. While that may not seem like a substantial time to walk, that would entail an hour’s free time to go vote, which raises the barrier to vote for some students enough so that they won’t vote (significant political science research has been done, which indicates that when people decide to vote or not, they weigh the costs and the benefits. An hour might be too much of a cost for a minimal benefit). While the Republican appointees wouldn’t admit it, keeping a polling place in a convenient place at App makes it easier for students (Read: Democrats/Liberals/Progressives) to vote, and by making it more difficult for students to vote, they can swing a close election. The Democratic appointees clearly have the reverse logic (that’s also why the Democratic Party tends to maintain a more robust Get Out the Vote operation at colleges and universities).
Back to the challenge: after a 2-1 decision at the local Board of Elections, the minority member appealed to the SBOE, where her challenge was rejected by the Republican controlled board. But that wasn’t the end. The challenge was then appealed into the courts, which ruled that the local board was discriminating based on age, and forced the state board to mandate that Watauga County open an early voting site at the App State Student Union… the day before polling opened in 2014. The Supreme Court then stayed the decision, and later ruled in support of the students and their right to have a polling place on campus. The same fight that we had in 2014, is likely to be repeated in 2016. Bleh. My thought? Haven’t we already seen which way this will go? (The [Republican Controlled] SBOE mandated that the Watauga County BoE put an early voting polling location at the Student Union for the March Primary, and it was the most utilized site in Watauga County DESPITE the fact that App students were on spring break for the full week of early voting).
Why care about Watauga County? Well first, I care about every vote, and have advocated for years about making voting easier, and enfranchising every voter possible. Second, Watauga County is incredibly competitive politically. As goes Watauga tends to go North Carolina. We’re incredibly representative of the state as a whole and races tend to be swung locally by a few hundred votes.
This Tuesday, the Watauga County Board of Elections will meet to decide their early voting plan. They will likely be met with immense public pressure, and the threat of another lawsuit if they ignore the demands of students. I look forward to standing firm with my friends at App State, and am thrilled to see that they’re holding strong.
As an outsider, the situation in Winston-Salem is not as clear to me as it may be to someone who has lived in Forsyth County for a significant amount of time, but from the way I view it, it appears that the partisan divide has to do with race. The two Republican appointees to the Forsyth Board of Elections, appear to be much more willing to place sites in rural parts of the county (areas which tend to be wealthier and whiter), as well as parts of the city, which have larger elderly populations. The one Democratic appointee has zoned in on increasing locations and hours in the urban city center of Winston-Salem, as well as poorer areas, which may be frequented more by African-American and minority voters. The Democratic appointee, Flemin al-Amin has emphasized the fact that there is increased population density in the city, thus in order to keep the lines shorter, we need more locations in the city. The Republican appointees have noted that we need more locations in the suburbs in order to keep people from needing to drive long distances to the polls, and that in inner city Winston, there may be early voting locations separated by only a couple miles.
One location, which has become incredibly contentious is the Anderson Center at Winston-Salem State University. Winston-Salem State is an HBCU, where students tend to not have alternative transportation modes, and are 1.5 miles away from the nearest polling site. Putting a polling location on the campus of WSSU would be huge for increasing turnout among students and African-Americans, but those groups have strong political leanings. While this could be expressing conspiracy theories, this one seems a little too obvious to be false.
Another issue which has become contentious in Winston-Salem has been whether polls should be open on Sunday in Forsyth County. Sunday voting has become increasingly popular among the African American community, where individuals will go to church Sunday morning, and then “stroll to the polls” in the afternoon as a form of fellowship. One of the Republican appointees to the Winston-Salem Board of Elections has stated that he’s not in favor of Sunday voting in order to give those individuals who are working the polls a break.
In 2014, a compromise solution was reached to allow for Sunday early voting, while not opening the Anderson Center polling location. Over the weeks to come, similar deliberations will likely be held, and hopefully a solution will be reached that enfranchises as many voters as possible. It’s in the board’s best interest to reach a solution which all parties can agree to, as to not have to go in front of the State Board of Elections.
While it may seem esoteric to look at what goes on behind the scenes with the Board of Election, these issues become so important in the event of a close election. These issues will also affect voter turnout. All in all, these events should make for some exciting political drama as we look forward to the conventions and the general election. Plus, as someone who is tired of a lot of what these Republican Boards of Election have worked to do, I’m interested in working even harder to elect a Democratic governor so that the Boards are controlled by Democratic appointees. All elections have consequences… Only one more week until the Republican convention starts, and only 120 days til Election Day!