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State chair: ‘I don’t want to see you on YouTube again’

Watauga County Board of Elections member Kathleen Campbell, standing at the podium, makes her case Tuesday at a N.C. State Board of Elections hearing in Raleigh. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

In a review of student voting cases Tuesday during a hearing in Raleigh, the N.C. State Board of Elections had some harsh words for county election officials, including an admonishment from Chair Josh Howard to the Watauga County elections board whose recent squabble over voting sites went viral on an online video site.

“I don’t want to see you on YouTube again,” he said.

North Carolina State Board of Elections Chair Josh Howard (left) and Secretary Rhonda Amoroso (right) listen as board member Joshua Malcolm grills Watauga County elections officials at a hearing held Tuesday in Raleigh. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

But despite the warning, the statewide board approved a revised voting plan that reduces the number of one-stop voting sites in Boone.

It also rejected a ruling which barred an Elizabeth City candidate for city council from using his dorm room as a residency.

The cases in Watauga and Pasquotank counties have been a focus of debate after the state passed an extensive rewrite of state voting rules in the waning days of the legislative session in August. Voting rights advocates claim the local moves follow on a larger effort to suppress turnout among student and minority voters.

In the Watauga County case, the newly appointed county elections board decided last month to drop an on-campus voting site as part of a plan to reduce the number of one-stop voting sites and consolidate precincts.

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That move was challenged by the lone Democrat on the three-member Watauga County elections board, Kathleen Campbell, who said it was an attempt to make it more difficult for students to get to the polls.

The objections led the Watauga board’s Republican majority to offer a revision to the precinct consolidation plan, which is scheduled to be considered at meeting of the board this morning.

With that part of the plan off the table, the state board eventually voted 4-to-1 to back the proposed change in one-stop sites, saying the size of the turnout did not justify opening a site on campus.

Watauga County Board of Elections Chair Luke Eggers said an on-campus site helps students but would be more difficult for other residents to get to. The new, more central location was better, he said.

“I find it hard to justify operating two sites within a half mile of each other,” he said. Eggers said the decision would only affect this year’s municipal race.

Campbell disagreed, saying that the on-campus site was the most used of three one-stop sites in past races. She added that a new site proposed in the student union would be even more accessible.

Closing a site, she said, would save the county no money. She also asserted that the new board was seeking to “deliberately disenfranchise” student voters by making it harder for them to vote.

But some state board members objected to Campbell’s characterization of the Watauga effort as suppression.

“There is no issue with the ‘S’ word here,” said Rhonda Amoroso, state elections board secretary. “I don’t see a problem.”

Watauga elections board member Bill Aceto said he considers the moves to be an improvement and would save money in the long run.

Appalachian State University Student Body President Dylan Russell confers with Vice President Adam Ezell (left) and Public Affairs Director Sarah Dickson (right) after a hearing and vote Tuesday by the N.C. State Board of Elections. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

After the vote, Appalachian State University Student Body President Dylan Russell said he was disappointed in the decision. Any changes to voting procedures, he said, should seek an increase in participation and civic engagement.

“The decision does neither,” he said.

Sarah Dickson, director of external affairs for student government, said she expects a strong, campus-wide effort to get more students out to vote will be launched as a result of the decision.

“We intend to make this a well-known issue,” she said.

The hearings drew a large crowd of observers who packed both the board’s meeting chambers and a overflow room, and the decision by the state elections board did not sit well with many attendees who traveled to the hearing.

Susan McCachren, of Boone, said that though the changes only affect the municipal race for now, there is a lot of concern about what might happen during the 2014 and 2016 cycle.

“It looks like they’re laying the groundwork to make more changes,” she said. “It seems to be an aggressive attempt to suppress the student vote. I think that’s sad.”

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Campbell said she understood the board’s frustration with Watauga board’s recent meeting, but she said it might be difficult for now to work more congenially with Eggers and Aceto as state board members insisted they do.

“I’d love that,” she said, “but they’re doing something I consider morally wrong.”

And in the state board’s other major review of a local decision affecting student voters, members unanimously rejected a decision by the Pasquotank County Board of Elections to disqualify Montravias King as a candidate for Elizabeth City City Council.

King’s use of his campus address in his candidate filing was challenged, and the local board ruled that he could not claim his dorm as a permanent address. King is a student at Elizabeth City State University.

After arguments, state board members agreed that the county board’s decision was in direct conflict with both state and federal Supreme Court decisions on student residency, and they cleared King to run for office.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Appalachian State University Student Government Association president. He is Dylan Russell.

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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