Elections board actions draw criticism
by Kellen Short
Critics are not ratcheting down their opposition to several election changes made by the Watauga County Board of Elections at a heated meeting Monday.
Among the most controversial was a decision to combine three Boone precincts into one containing 9,340 registered voters -- an action that created the state's fifth largest precinct based on voter tallies, according to a Watauga Democrat analysis.
The lone Democrat on the board is also appealing a new early voting plan that eliminates the early voting site at ASU's Plemmons Student Union, and critics are seeking to bring statewide attention to changes they see as an attack on voting rights.
Boone Mayor Loretta Clawson issued an open letter Thursday condemning the changes, and a statewide activist organization is urging the governor to get involved. Some residents also have asked the State Board of Elections to turn its attention to the west.
"We've had a few emails from the Watauga County citizens in regard to the board meeting," said Don Wright, general counsel for the N.C. Board of Elections. "The staff of the state board has read each concern that's been sent ... and we are accessing other information and reviewing it."
The board voted 2-1 Monday to recombine Boone's three precincts into one. Chairman Luke Eggers and Secretary Bill Aceto, both Republicans, voted for the plan, while Democrat Kathleen Campbell voted against.
As of Aug. 11, the precinct had 9,340 registered voters, including 2,252 who are considered inactive.
Of those registered, 2,553 are registered Democrats, 1,925 are Republicans, 4,714 are unaffiliated and 148 are Libertarian.
The total number of registered voters makes the unified precinct the state's fifth largest, according to an analysis of the most recent data available from the N.C. Board of Elections from October 2012.
"Nine thousand voters in a precinct is larger than the typical precinct," said Wright, the general counsel. "As to whether it's proper and can be handled by the election workers at the polling place is a different issue."
The board's vote Monday creates one polling place for Boone at the Agricultural Conference Center between King Street and Poplar Grove Road.
The parking lot closest to the voting site contains 28 regular parking spots and two handicapped spots, if all equipment is moved from the lot.
Parking lots located to the side and front of the building provide roughly 25 more spots and one additional handicapped spot. If voters were to park in the grass, entry driveways or blocking the loading dock, another 15 to 20 parking spaces might be available in the immediate vicinity of the building.
Similarly populated precincts across North Carolina use a variety of polling places.
The state's largest is the East Northwood precinct near Jacksonville, home of Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base. As of Oct. 31, 2012, that precinct had 10,405 voters who vote at the Jacksonville Commons Recreation Center, which has a large gymnasium with two basketball courts, a lobby and two meeting rooms.
According to the Jacksonville web site, the building can hold approximately 2,700 people at one time.
Onslow County Deputy Elections Director Kelly Horne said that while the number of voters may sound high, it can be deceiving. Many take advantage of early voting and absentee voting by mail, she said.
"You've got to remember that we're kind of a military community, so just because it has that many doesn't mean there's quite that many that show up on Election Day," Horne said.
In Mecklenburg County, which has two precincts with larger voting populations and one nearly equal to the recombined Boone precinct, voting places include an Oasis Shrine Temple, a middle school gym and a Baptist church.
"I would easily assume that you would have over 100 parking spaces at sites like that," Elections Director Michael Dickerson said.
He said that ensuring access for disabled voters is first on the priority list, followed by space considerations, when choosing polling places.
"First thing we look at at a big precinct like that is how can I handle parking?" Dickerson said. "And parking's usually my key -- can everybody get there? Secondly, if you're getting there, do I have enough room where I can ... get them in and get them out?"
Harnett County Elections Director Claire Jones said there are more than 100 parking spots at its Barbecue precinct polling place: a high school gym. The precinct contains 9,835 registered voters, and Jones said it didn't typically experience long lines or waits.
"At the larger polling place, we just have to make sure that they are staffed with more workers, that they have more voting booths," Jones said.
While Boone's polling place will be a smaller area with less parking than other precincts with similarly sized voter rolls, Republican board members believe the site's features make it appropriate to serve the population.
"Even if the Board of Elections were to have a larger-than-expected turnout on Election Day at this precinct, we have chosen a location which is easily scalable and can accommodate a large turnout of voters," Eggers wrote in a letter Monday to the N.C. Board of Elections executive director.
He said the site had "ample parking" and was "very walkable, with local AppalCART bus service to all locations within this area," the letter states.
He also said the number of registered voters in the precinct -- 9,340 -- could be misleading due to the nature of the Appalachian State University population.
"The number of individuals listing a dormitory as their primary residence is much larger than the number of actual residents in the Boone precincts due to the requirement that voters may not be purged from the voter lists until they have been inactive for two presidential election cycles (or at least eight years)," Eggers wrote.
He also pointed out that the three previous Boone precincts were within a one-mile area and even when combined, create the county's smallest geographic precinct.
Eggers did not immediately return a message
seeking additional comments Thursday.
Aceto also did not reply by press time to an email seeking an interview.
Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the N.C. Board of Elections, must approve the combination of precincts, Wright said.
Wright said the state board typically receives between 15 and 20 such requests a year and may consider the number of voters in the precinct as a factor in whether to approve. He said Tuesday he was not sure whether Strach had reviewed the local decision.
"As to the number of parking places at a polling place, there is no state law that dictates an exact number," Wright said. "One would expect the county, based upon their prior experience of voter turnout in a precinct, to have an idea of a number of parking spaces that will be needed."
Wright said Watauga County was blessed to have a "competent and experienced elections director in Jane Ann Hodges."
"There is no doubt by the state board and its staff that Mrs. Hodges will be able to implement changes and to run the elections -- the municipal elections in 2013 -- in such a way that all voters will have the opportunity to vote while meeting all the necessary standards," he said.
Wright would not elaborate on whether he believed that could still be achieved during a larger, non-municipal election.
The combination of Boone precincts is only one change bothering critics.
Campbell, the lone Democrat on the board, said Thursday she was working furiously on an alternate early voting plan to challenge the one approved Monday.
Wright said a minority county board member may appeal to the state board with an alternate early voting plan if the vote is not unanimous.
"The state board only makes a ruling where there's an appeal to it in regard to two competing plans," he said.
Campbell would not elaborate on her plan until it was submitted but said Thursday it more closely resembled the former plan, which had an early voting site on the ASU campus.
Clawson, a Democrat who has served as mayor of Boone for eight years, also has been in contact with the N.C. Board of Elections.
In a letter dated Wednesday, Clawson expressed dismay about several of the local board's actions and asked the state board to look into the situation.
"If this is the way in which they are going to operate, I believe the Town of Boone should be able to conduct our own elections and bypass this board," Clawson wrote. "I anticipate that you will receive additional communication on these very issues from the Boone Town Council following our meeting next week."
Common Cause North Carolina, which identifies itself as a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to empowering citizens, issued a memo Thursday urging Gov. Pat McCrory to get involved.
Executive Director Bob Phillips said Common Cause wanted the governor involved because of comments he made earlier this week indicating it was wrong for partisan politics to be a factor in selecting precincts.
McCrory's Deputy Communications Director Ryan Tronovitch said in an email Thursday the office was aware of the changes at the Watauga County Board of Elections.
"We aren't involved, as this is a local issue," Tronovitch wrote.
The Watauga County Board of Elections is expected to meet next at 9 a.m. Tuesday to approve precinct officials and cover other business.