Elections board holds tense meeting
by Kellen Short
The Watauga County Board of Elections made several substantial changes to the local elections process during a raucous meeting Monday marked by cussing, name-calling and accusations.
Kathleen Campbell, the lone Democrat on the board, decried the actions of Republican members Bill Aceto and Luke Eggers, who she said failed to give any specifics about the agenda to her or to elections staff until Monday morning.
"I don't ever want to be treated like this again. Do you understand me?" Campbell said at the start of the meeting. "I am appointed just like you are. I want you to give me the common courtesy of being treated with respect."
Amid shouts and boos from an audience of about 60 people, the board -- with Campbell's disapproval -- eliminated the early voting site on the ASU campus and recombined the Boone precincts into one with 9,340 registered voters and one polling place.
They also approved a new public comment policy that accepts feedback only in writing and assigned new rules to Board of Elections Director Jane Ann Hodges and staff.
The meeting began with officer selection in a small conference room at the
Board of Elections office, with the Republicans choosing Eggers for chairman
and Aceto for secretary. After a lengthy tirade from Campbell, the board
recessed to move to the Commissioners' Board Room in the Watauga County
Administration Building to make room for all in attendance.
One-stop early voting plan
The board voted 2-1 to replace a previously approved one-stop early voting plan with one that sets only one early voting location at the Watauga County Commissioners' Board Room.
In the past, early voting has occurred in the ground-floor courtroom at the Watauga County Courthouse and at the ASU Plemmons Student Union, and Hodges said money had been budgeted this year for both sites. Early voting also was held last year at the Foscoe Fire Department due to the presidential race.
Aceto said the move would prevent disturbances to court operations and prevent voters from having to pass through courthouse security. He did not address the reason for the closure of the early voting site on campus.
Campbell said the decision was unfair to Boone voters, whose taxes pay for the municipal election and who hadn't had a chance to weigh in.
Boone precincts combined
The board also voted 2-1 to combine the three Boone precincts into one, with a single polling place at the Agricultural Conference Center located between King Street and Poplar Grove Road.
It will eliminate the Election Day polling places previously located at the Watauga County Commissioners' Board Room and the ASU Plemmons Student Union.
As a result, up to 9,340 registered voters will be asked to vote at the Agricultural Conference Center starting this fall. The next largest precinct is New River III, with only 3,901 registered voters.
The resolution requesting the change said that Election Day turnout at the Boone III and Boone I precincts had historically been the lowest of any precincts and that the abundance of precincts within town limits had led to voter confusion about where to vote.
The resolution also stated that locating polling places on campuses complicates the work of law enforcement and campus security efforts. It also said the recombination would allow the Board of Elections to better utilize its resources and funds.
"If you're going to have a 'super precinct' of almost 10,000 voters, you're going to have to have more than one place to vote," Campbell argued, mentioning a possible lawsuit if the decision moved forward.
Hodges said the Agricultural Conference Center had roughly 35 parking spots and that she would use all three sections of the building if required.
"If my board directs me to do such, I will make it work," Hodges said.
Aceto said he is currently assigned to vote at the ASU Plemmons Student Union and encouraged all students to vote. But he said he felt strongly that the site should be moved because it could be difficult to locate and did not have ample parking.
Eggers added that he felt Hodges' 27 years of experience would allow her to run the election efficiently at that polling place.
"Jane Ann can make sure that it happens, and she is very, very skilled at running elections," he said.
Relocating poll sites
The board also voted 2-1 to relocate the Meat Camp polling place from Green Valley School to the new Meat Camp Fire Department, which is a couple of weeks from completion, Chief Ben Winebarger said Friday.
Hodges said the Meat Camp polling place at the school had been an issue before.
"Even my former board agreed that we needed to make a change," Hodges said. "The state board has continually encouraged us to get out of schools because of security for the voters, security for the students."
They also moved the New River III polling place from the National Guard Armory to Mutton Crossing on Bamboo Road. The site has been used as a polling place before, Hodges noted.
The Board of Elections pays $50 to rent any privately owned space, such as Mutton Crossing, she said. In publicly owned buildings, no rent is paid and the board may demand their use as polling places.
Campbell provided a map that she said showed more of the population lived near the Armory than Mutton Crossing.
She also argued that the site would not provide adequate parking and that the distance from the road would not allow people to hand out pamphlets and still maintain the required buffer zone.
They also voted unanimously to move the Seven Devils polling place from the Foscoe Fire Department to the Seven Devils Town Hall, a less controversial decision since it has been done for decades for the convenience of that town's voters.
Public comment policy
The board also approved a resolution stating that it would receive public
comments only in writing. Anyone interested in commenting must submit their
thoughts to the elections director, who will compile them before each monthly
The policy says the chairman may temporarily suspend the policy if he deems it appropriate.
Eggers said the board is not required to hold public comment periods in its meetings but that he was mindful of the importance of public comment. He said those comments had to be balanced with the state's strict time frames on conducting election business.
"We do value the input of the people, but we do have to balance that," he said.
Campbell proposed that the board instead allow residents who appear at a meeting time to comment prior to the board's final votes. Hodges said the previous board had no policy and allowed people present at meetings to address them verbally.
The majority members appeared hesitant to read the policy aloud, failing to second Campbell's motion asking Hodges to read it for those gathered.
Despite chants of "Read it, read it" and a shout from the crowd of "What are you hiding?" the board voted 2-1 to approve the policy.
The board also provided a new list of duties for Hodges and her staff.
Rather than creating the agenda for board meetings, Hodges is now tasked to "assist the chairman in the preparation of an agenda."
The list also adds a new rule: "The director shall not become involved in discussion or debate of political or discretionary decisions of the board regarding the location or number of polling places or early voting sites and hours, except to the extent necessary to advise the board whether such location would be in violation of state or federal law or other administrative rule of the State Board of Elections."
The board also mandated that no Board of Elections employee be in the office alone after normal business hours between the start of early voting until the completion of the canvass. Eggers said the mandate was intended to ensure the security of the ballots.
"It's impossible to have staffing with me at all times," Hodges said, adding that she often stays in the office from 6 a.m. to nearly midnight during the voting period.
She said after the meeting that she would comply with the rule by changing the hours of her staff or using part-time workers.
All Board of Elections staff now must keep logs of all telephone calls and visitors to the office, including the date and time of the contact and whether it was incoming or outgoing.
"I have complete faith that Mrs. Hodges can execute any duties that this board approves for her," Eggers said.
The board also addressed several non-controversial issues, including the approval of new voter registrations and agreements with neighboring counties to conduct the Seven Devils, Beech Mountain and Blowing Rock municipal elections.
The board set its meetings at 5 p.m. the first Wednesday of each month.
The board will meet next, however, at 9 a.m. Aug. 20 to approve precinct officials prior to attending a two-day conference in Raleigh.
The meeting adjourned despite protests by Campbell, who asked that those who attended be given a chance to comment.
From the start, Campbell criticized the other board members not just for the actions they took but the process by which they took them. She accused the two of meeting outside her presence and in consultation with Republican Party Chairwoman Anne-Marie Yates, whose brother is currently running for Boone Town Council.
"For the record, we have never consulted," Aceto said.
Eggers added after the meeting that the actions he proposed came from years watching elections occur in the county.
"These are things that I've just seen over the years, changes that can make it more equitable and fair for everyone to vote," he said.
Campbell asked to add to the agenda a review of permissible and nonpermissible political activities by the board -- a topic on the July agenda -- but Eggers said it would be a violation of law to add anything to the agenda because it was a special meeting.
"You can't just come in here like gangbusters," Campbell said. "You guys are really out of line."
Hodges said she anticipated the State Board of Elections would review the decisions made at Monday's meeting, especially the one-stop early voting plan because the approval was not unanimous.