UPDATE: ACLU keeps eye on Watauga elections
by Kellen Short
With the 2013 elections completed, some are already looking forward to next year's elections in Watauga County -- including the ACLU.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina sent a letter to County Attorney Stacy "Four" Eggers on Tuesday notifying him of complaints about early voting changes that occurred this year and reminding him of state law changes effective next year.
The letter, signed by ACLU legal director Christopher Brook, said the office received "many complaints from Watauga County citizens about cuts to the early voting" put in place by the Watauga County Board of Elections.
The Republican majority board voted 2-1 in August to eliminate the early voting site on the Appalachian State University campus, leaving one early voting site at the Watauga County commissioners' board room.
"Many of these citizens expressed further concerns that these cuts could prove especially suppressive of the vote should they remain in place for the 2014 and 2016 elections," Brook wrote.
The N.C. General Assembly voted in July on a bill changing numerous facets of voting policy in North Carolina, including eliminating a week of early voting.
Starting in 2014, county boards of elections are required to
match or exceed the number of hours for early voting as were offered in the
2010 election (for a non-presidential race year) or the 2012 election (for a
presidential race year).
Each county may decide how to fulfill that requirement through a number of early voting sites and hours during both the primary and general elections.
Watauga County, for example, must offer at least 272 hours of early voting in the primary and 237 hours in the general election during the 2014 election and in every nonpresidential, even-numbered election year after, Brook said.
It also must offer at least 193 hours of early voting in the primary and 305 hours in the general election during the 2016 election and every presidential election year thereafter, Brook said.
Brook said the ACLU also plans to monitor upcoming elections to ensure the board's compliance with the law.
"That monitoring ... can take many different forms, from simply monitoring press coverage to remaining in contact with individuals who have been concerned with previous changes in voting procedures to being physically present," Brook said in an interview Wednesday.
Brook said this was the first letter of this type the ACLU had sent to a county elections board, although the organization also monitored issues in Pasquotank, Forsyth and other counties during 2013.
"You have legal obligations, but you also have policy obligations to keep in the spirit of the law and, via the early voting opportunities, to make democratic participation as accessible as is possible for all residents in the county," he said Wednesday.
Eggers, a former Watauga County Board of Elections member, said he was well aware of the upcoming statutory changes, but had not yet discussed them with the current board.
He said he was happy to work with Brook and the ACLU on any future elections matters.
"The more eyes you have on something, the better it is," he said.
Elections Director Jane Ann Hodges, who also was copied on the letter, said the staff already has been planning how to meet the new state requirements.
She said she thought several early voting sites would be needed and that most would have to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to meet the hourly requirements.
"With the board's oversight, we will be considering how to get in all the hours that we have to have next spring," she said.
SBOE hearing uncertain
Some Democrats, however, continue to question whether the Republican board of elections members are fit to make such decisions -- or any decisions.
Democrats Stella Anderson, Ian O'Keefe and Jesse Presnell sent a complaint to the State Board of Elections on Oct. 9 asking that Watauga County Board of Elections Chairman Luke Eggers and Secretary Bill Aceto be removed from their posts.
The petitioners accused the two of "official misconduct, participation in intentional irregularities, unethical actions, and incapacity and incompetency to discharge the duties of their offices" and requested a hearing on the claims.
Aceto submitted a written response asking the board to dismiss the complaint, adding in an interview that "a small group of local Democrats are unhappy."
The State Board of Elections is not required to hold a formal hearing and has not yet decided whether to do so on this complaint, SBOE general counsel Don Wright said Wednesday.
"It's up to the state board to determine whether to have a hearing or not," Wright said. "The basis is if the charges show prima facie violation of election law. The State Board of Elections has not made that decision, but the State Board of Elections has had the complaint filed for several weeks now and will be making a determination of how to handle it in the near future."