Board votes 2-1 on early voting plan
by Allison Haver
On Wednesday, the Watauga County Board of Elections voted two-to-one to have one-stop sites at the:
-- Watauga County Administration Building in downtown Boone.
-- Western Watauga Community Center in Sugar Grove.
-- Blowing Rock Town Hall.
-- Deep Gap Fire Department.
-- Meat Camp Fire Department.
The hours of operation for each of the five sites in the plan passed Wednesday night are:
-- 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday, April 24
-- 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday, April 25
-- 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday, April 28
-- 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday, April 29
-- 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday, April 30
-- 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday, May 1
-- 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday, May 2
-- 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, May 3
Board secretary Bill Aceto submitted the approved plan, which is now required to go before the State Board of Elections because it was not a unanimous vote.
Last fall, the state board upheld an early voting proposal that eliminated early voting on the ASU campus.
Board Chairman Luke Eggers and Aceto voted for the plan, while Kathleen Campbell, the only Democrat on the board, had her own proposal, which she presented during the board's February meeting and again on Wednesday.
Her proposal included sites in the county and sites at the Watauga County Courthouse, Boone Town Council Chambers and Plemmons Student Union at ASU.
According to Aceto, the reason behind his proposal was that the five sites he selected are geographically centered throughout the county.
Aceto also said that the combined 305 operation hours at the five sites go above and beyond the state-required 272 hours, and that more than two-thirds of counties within the state had decreased early voting hours.
During the February meeting, Campbell said that new legislation restricted polling places from being located at privately owned facilities, such as churches and schools, and the board must utilize the hours of voting operations set by the general assembly and come up with its own plan for voting.
The new law requires counties to provide the same cumulative total number of early voting hours each county offered for the May 2010 primary.
In 2010, Watauga County had a cumulative total of 272 hours, including 113 hours at the Watauga County Board of Elections office; 89 hours at the Agricultural Conference Center; and 70 hours at the Plemmons Student Union.
Aceto also said that the early-voting site at the Watauga County Administration Building would serve as an acceptable voting place for Boone residents and those who work at ASU. Aceto said that the location is accessible via the AppalCART and by foot from the college campus.
When it was Campbell's turn to speak, she tried to ask Watauga County Elections Director Jane Ann Hodges questions about Aceto's proposal regarding what she thought would be the percentage of voters that vote in town as opposed to voting inside precincts out in the county.
Hodges declined to comment because of a resolution that was passed last August that took away some of Hodge's duties as director.
One such rule was that the director was not allowed to discuss or debate "political or discretionary decisions of the board regarding the location or number of polling places or early voting sites and hours."
"If you recall my duties adopted by the board in August, I prefer not to answer questions," Hodges said.
Campbell asked Eggers to give permission for Hodges to answer her questions, and Eggers said the question was "subjective" and that the decision before them was a board decision and not a staff decision.
Aceto said that he did not think it was fair to put the director on the spot and that Campbell should have asked her questions prior to the meeting.
Campbell then presented her proposal to the board again, which consisted of the 91 operating hours at the Watauga County Courthouse early voting site being 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on all but the very last day of early voting.
Campbell's proposal also included Meat Camp Fire Department, Western Watauga Community Center, Blowing Rock Town Hall, ASU Plemmons Student Union and Boone Town Council Chambers, which would have been open for 35 hours each during the early voting period with alternating daily hours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
During February's board meeting, Campbell said it was her goal to make everyone happy and her reasoning behind her selecting the Watauga County Courthouse, ASU and Boone Town Council Chambers as early voting sites were due to 62 percent of recent registered voters lived in eight precincts.
Campbell suggested a "compromise," which would include an early voting site on ASU and another one at the Boone Town Council Chambers.
Aceto said the board should not be "bargaining" on polling places and said that general statutes note that counties must provide "safe, secure, clear and honest elections and as a board, we've done a good job of that."
"I feel this one-stop plan will benefit all citizens of the county and that's why I support this plan," Aceto said.
Eggers and Aceto voted for the proposal that did not include an early voting location on the ASU campus and Campbell was the only nay vote.
After the vote, the board took a 15-minute recess and then held an official public comment section at the end of the meeting.
Ian O'Keefe, an ASU student and field director for the Watauga County Democratic Party, said the board's vote was "appalling" because of the drop-in session held to listen to members of Watauga County, and according to Aceto, a majority of those citizens present at the workshop supported an early voting site on the ASU campus.
Pam Williamson said she was "not surprised" by the board's decision and that Aceto's plan was "a calculated and deliberate attempt to disenfranchise and suppress the votes of young people progressive voters."
"This is a blatant discrimination," Williamson said.
A former chairman of the Watauga County Republican Party, Matt Snyder said he commended the board for its selections and vote on Wednesday and that it was "about time" that communities in the county received an early voting site and that the board's decision was a "very fair approach."
Watauga County Republican Party Chairwoman Anne-Marie Yates said that she was a lifelong resident of the county and that 66 percent of voters are rural.
"I would like to thank you for respecting the rural voters who have been suppressed for many year and I'd like to thank you for reversing the previous plan that favored urban Democrats," Yates said.