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Early voting underway across North Carolina

BOONE — In the first two days of operation, vote totals at the new early voting site on the campus of Appalachian Sate University far outpace the rest of the county’s six sites.

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Watauga County voting records show that, as of close of business on Friday, the new site in the Price Lake Room at the Plemmons Student Center accounted for 1,124 of the 2,644 early vote ballots cast.

Colby Rabon/Carolina Public Press

The early voting period, shortened under new elections laws, started statewide on Thursday and continues through Saturday, Nov. 1.

The Plemmons location almost didn’t happen, but was set up in time for Thursday’s 8 a.m. opening after a protracted court battle that eventually included the intervention of the state Supreme Court.

County elections director Jane Ann Hodges said that once the decision was made to go ahead with the site, the set-up went smoothly. Since then, she said, the staff of eight election workers have been working hard to keep up with a surge in demand.

“I’m very impressed with the turnout we’ve seen,” Hodges said. “We want to encourage everyone to get out and vote regardless of where they vote.”

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MORE: Find an early voting site in your county here.

ASU Student Body President Carson Rich said that after some confusion about whether there would be a site at all, word is getting around and students are taking advantage of the location.

“We’re happy that it worked out and we have a site right in the student union,” he said. “It makes it easier for students going to and from class.”

Rich said he hope the turnout proves once and for all the value of an on-campus location. He said this year’s controversy has had the benefit of increasing interest in a non-presidential year where the focus of the election is on more local and regional contests.

“What I really like seeing is more students interested in the local elections,” he said.

The county has opened up six early voting sites. So far, the two locations in Boone are drawing the highest tallies. After the student center, the site seeing the largest foot traffic was the Watauga County Administration Building on West King Street, with 1,062 voters going to the site. It is followed by Blowing Rock Town Hall (155), Western community center (130), and Meat Camp (89) and Deep Gap (85) fire departments.

After two of the total of eight early voting days, the county has seen more than a third of the 2010 early vote of 7,521.

Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer said there are strong indications from the first days of early voting and from absentee mail-in ballots that 2014 turnout will easily top that of the e 2010 election, the last non-presidential election cycle. Bitzer, who crunches the turnout numbers at his blog Old North State Politics, said the mix of ballots shows a lot more Democratic voters, especially in larger cities and university towns.

The trend in Watauga County is one place where the effect is noticeable. And it’s very likely, he said, that the controversy over the on-campus location is adding to that jump in turnout.

According to Bitzer, registration information for the county’s early voting and accepted mail-in ballots shows that 1,268 Democrats, 699 Republicans, 849 unaffiliated and 18 Libertarians have voted so far.

The controversy about whether ASU would see an on-campus location is just the latest in a long-running partisan battle over voting.

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The decision to not offer an on campus site came after the State Board of Elections settled a split vote from the county board of elections. The state board sided with the county board’s GOP majority and approved a plan that did not include an on-campus site. In a subsequent court challenge to the plan launched by a group of Watauga citizens, Wake Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens issued a ruling on Oct. 13 requiring an on-campus site. The university then offered two sites, Legends nightclub on the edge of campus and the Plemmons Student Union, which has been an early voting site since the 2006 election cycle.

Last week, as state elections officials planned their appeal to the lower court’s ruling and the state’s early voting period loomed, a quick succession of events led to the opening of the student union site.

On Tuesday, the state Court of Appeals denied the appeal, backing up Stephens’ decision. The following day, in an emergency meeting, the State Board of Elections waited until late in the day for potential action by the state Supreme Court. With time running out and early voting scheduled to start in the morning, the board unanimously approved a new plan for Watauga County that included the student union site among six early voting sites located across the county.

Within minutes of that decision, the state Supreme Court ruled, staying Stephens’ order and sending the case back to the Court of Appeals. It was a legal twist that opened the door for the state elections board to come up with another plan that did not include an on-campus site, but the elections board stuck to its decision, allowing the Plemmons location to open.

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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