|Aceto & Eggers. Photo by Lonnie Webster|
One might think that the local GOP would begin developing a strategy for winning the hearts and minds of college students, rather than communicating hostility toward that age group. Is there any wonder why 18-25 year-olds don't flock to the Republican banner?
Everything said for public consumption by GOP leaders, including what Bill Aceto said at last night's Board of Elections meeting and especially what gets written on the Watauga Conservative, acknowledges that additional barriers have indeed been set up to discourage college student voting. That acknowledgement comes with the repeated statement that students shouldn't mind a few extra blocks to walk. They were singled out for a longer hike. That is the indisputable fact, and I believe most college-age voters totally get the purpose of that.
Tonight I am proposing two things, one about early voting and one about election-day voting. I am presenting them together because they are related. Both are necessary to avoid abridging the rights of citizens to equal and fair voting opportunities, especially those voters who are 18 – 21 years old. The 26th Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits such an abridgement of this specific group of voters.
I am proposing:
1. An early voting plan that will put an early voting site on the campus of ASU in the Linville Falls Room of the Student Union Building.
2. Moving the election-day polling place for the Boone #2 Precinct, one of the two precincts that serve the campus and the only precinct located on campus, from the Legends nightclub to the Linville Falls Room at the Student Union.
The importance of these two proposals becomes clearer when you consider the following facts:
· The enrollment of ASU constitutes almost 34% of the total population of Watauga County and an even greater number of the voting population. No other county even comes close to a college population with that large a share of the county population. Jackson County, with WCU, comes closest at just under 25%.
· The ASU community consists largely of people between the ages of 18-21. As we have all discussed before, this age group in particular has demanding class schedules and remote access to cars if any access at all.
· While some students maintain their voter registration outside Watauga County, they have a right recognized in State and federal law to register and vote in Watauga, where they make their home during the time they are in college. A large number have done so. In fact, a full 13% of Watauga’s registered voters is 18-21 years old, lives in dorms on ASU’s campus, and 100% of them live in the Boone 2 and Boone 3 precincts, which together encompass the campus. A larger percentage could do so if they wanted.
· Because of their difficulties with transportation, students at ASU in the past have chosen to cast early ballots. Also because of their transportation challenges, students have voted provisional ballots on Election Day outside their precincts at the ASU polling location. This is particularly true for students living on the west side of campus, whose Boone 3 Election Day polling location is at the Agricultural Conference Center, at least a 20 minute one-way walk along rough roads with no shoulders.
· In 2013, the General Assembly severely limited two methods that students found helpful in overcoming their difficulties voting. The legislators removed the first week from the early voting period, squeezing the time to early-vote into about two weeks. And, except for voters with unreported moves, the legislators prohibited the counting of all out-of-precinct provisional and/or transfer ballots on Election Day. A lawsuit in federal court, filed by students outside Watauga, is challenging both those legislative actions as unconstitutional to the rights of young voters and a violation of the 26th Amendment.
· In the wake of these losses of early voting opportunities and out-of-precinct provisional/transfer voting, one would expect County boards of elections to find ways to accommodate the needs that caused student voters to utilize those methods. The boards could put early voting sites and precinct polling places in more accessible places. Some county boards of elections in counties with large campuses have, if not making things better, at least not making them worse. But inexplicably, in Watauga, which has by far the highest percentage of campus enrollment to voting age population in the State, we have gone in the opposite direction.
· Over the expressed needs of over 30% of our registered voters, and in spite of the fact that over 17,000 students, faculty and staff work and/or study on ASU’s campus, our Board proposed an early voting plan that would no longer include an early voting site on campus. We took away the ASU Student Union site in 2013, a site where more voters per hour cast ballots than at any other early voting site in 2009.
· As a result of eliminating ASU’s early voting site, we saw an astonishing 79% increase in provisional votes cast on Election Day between the Municipal elections of 2009 and 2013 (after which the state took away that option).
· Then, to make matters even worse, we moved the only on-campus voting location, Boone 2, from the Student Union to the obviously inadequate (as expressed by both ASU and our own Director) Legends nightclub, as far away from young voters and all the faulty and staff as we could get.
· The results of this Board’s actions are now in.
· Even though both early and election day voting have been reasonably strong countywide in the last two elections, voting in Boone 2 has fallen by almost 58% between the last two elections, and, in Boone 3, voting has fallen by almost 30%.
· Voting by the County’s 18-21 year old voters has suffered even worse between the last two elections, dramatically so. In Boone 2, votes cast by 18-21 year olds is down 80%, and in Boone 3, voting by 18-21 year olds is down almost 50%.
· For the 2013 Municipal elections, we offered a single early voting site downtown. While we did increase overall turnout by 1.18% in 2013 compared to the 2009 Municipal, this was the result of a 1.26% increase in mail-in ballots. And then, as the result of inadequate one-stop location siting in 2014, we saw an even more dramatic increase in the county’s number of mail-in ballots, up almost 42% higher than even the previous election.
· Comparing the 2010 Primary Election (when an early voting site and Student Union Election Day site were available, and when provisional/transfer voting was allowed) to the 2014 Primary election (when neither were available), total votes cast on the ASU campus has now resulted in a 75% decrease. As a result, the average age of total voters who cast ballots countywide increased in 2014 by 8 years.
· Ballots cast by mail increased by over 50% for both Democrats and Unaffiliated voters from the 2010 to the 2014 primary, while requests for mail-in ballots for Republicans fell by 32%. And because this Board eliminated two of the three in-town early voting locations, Democratic performance fell in one-stop voting by almost 4 percent from 2010 to 2014 while republican performance increased almost 3%.
· The number of votes cast in Boone 2 in 2013 on ASU’s campus location fell by almost 58% in 2014, primarily from the lack of a one-stop site combined with the disallowance of provisional ballots.
· And One-stop voting across all precincts fell from 40% of the vote in 2013 to 35% of the total vote in 2014 even though we offered 5 times the number of one-stop locations.
· This is what has happened when these voters were given the one-two-three-four punch of losing a week of early voting, losing out-of-precinct provisional voting, losing an early voting site on campus, and getting unsuitable voting places on election day. The results are disheartening, but not surprising.
· Plus all this, what we are doing in siting our one-stop locations is a waste of money and staff and a frustration for voters. Of the 5 one-stop locations we used in this May’s primary, the single downtown early voting location took in over 72% of all early voters. And that’s because people drive right past the remote sites we’d offered to come and vote downtown. 37% of the Meat Camp early voters voted somewhere other than the Meat Camp Fire Department. The same is true for all the other remote sites as well. Even one-fourth of Blowing Rock’s early ballots were cast in downtown Boone.
· If we assume a similar turnout for this November’s general election as we had in 2010 (and frankly I believe that’s low), we should expect to receive 7,522 total one-stop voters downtown; that’s a 342% increase from the number we had just this past primary. And we’re looking at 5,416 voters trying to use the single downtown site for early voting alone. Where are we going to park all these people? How are we going to handle the 86 expected voters per hour for early voting at the downtown location this November as opposed to the 26 per hour we averaged this past primary?
· In the 2010 General Election, we offered just three sites, and none of them accommodated more than 38 voters per hour because the other 2 in-town locations eased the traffic at the downtown location. It’s simply a no-brainer to offer an early voting site in ASU’s Student Union. There is plenty of parking, the space exceeds all of our criteria, many if not most of our registered voters live and/or work there, and the public has it made it clear they want the site.
The elections this board has supervised since it took office have been important but relatively small. They should be used as a shakedown cruise for the major election facing us this fall. We now have an opportunity to learn from that shakedown cruise and give our voters an election in which everyone can have confidence.