Local officials eye state voting controversies

Aug. 22, 2013 @ 11:29 AM

In Pasquotank County, a Republican-controlled Board of Elections is challenging the right of students at Elizabeth City State University to cast their ballots in the county.

And in Watauga County, another GOP-controlled elections board has taken several steps that critics say are intended to suppress student voting at Appalachian State University.
But the new Republican chairman of the Orange County Board of Elections said Tuesday that she doesn’t anticipate her board following in the footsteps of those boards whose controversial actions have propelled them into the national spotlight.
“We’re trying to do this on a non-partisan basis, what’s best for all citizens of Orange County,” said Katherine Knight, one of two Republicans recently appointed to the Orange County board.
Knight was sworn in last month, along with another Republican and one Democrat.
It’s the first time in recent memory that Republicans have held the majority on the board, which is appointed by the State Board of Elections.
The state Elections Board is also controlled by Republicans, thanks to historic election wins that gave the GOP control of the state House, Senate and governor’s office.
Voting rights advocates have been critical of the elections board in Watauga County for taking steps to eliminate early voting on the Appalachian State campus.
Knight declined to comment directly on the actions of either the Pasquotank or Watauga boards.
But she did say there are no immediate plans to eliminate the early voting site at Rams Head Dinning Hall on the UNC campus, even though she is concerned about parking issues and that the site isn’t accessible to people off campus.
“Rams Head will remain an early voting site for the upcoming election, but beyond that I don’t know,” Knight said. “Whether there is another site better, I don’t know.”
Knight added that changes would not be made without first consulting the university to find a student-accessible site off campus. 
The Watauga County board also is being criticized for consolidating three voting precincts into one large precinct for 10,000 voters at a site with only 35 parking spaces and reducing early voting to only four days.
Meanwhile, election officials in Pasquotank County have invalidated the election filing of an ECSU student, Montravias King, who had filed to run for town council.
The board declared King ineligible to run for office because he lives on campus and his on-campus address cannot be used to establish local residency.
King can vote in the upcoming municipal election, however, despite the fact that the requirements to run for office are the same as those for voting.
Pete Gilbert, chairman of the Pasquotank Republican Party, told the Associated Press that he plans to challenge the residency and voter registration of students elsewhere, even though state law is clear that students are eligible to vote in the towns in which they attend college as long as they don’t also vote in their hometowns.
Tracy Reams, director of the Orange County Board of Elections, agreed that the law about student voting is clear, and said there is no reason to think the Orange County board will suddenly challenge the right of students to vote in local elections.
“They have not questioned that in the past and there is nothing to lead me to believe they will question it in the future unless there is a change in the law,” Reams said. 
Matt Hughes, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, sent the Orange County elections board a letter expressing concern about the actions of the boards in Pasquotank and Watauga.
Wrote Hughes: “It is my hope that in Orange County we can avoid these divisive actions by continuing our tradition of bipartisan decision making in which all three members of the Board of Elections, Elections Director and the two party chairs are able to weigh in on decisions before the board and in which everyone has buy in with transparency.”  
Keeping Orange County elections open and accessible to voters should be the board’s top concern, he said.
“Orange County has always been a leader in conducting elections fairly and that tradition should continue regardless of ideology,” Hughes said.
Voting rights have been a hot topic in North Carolina thanks to the new voter ID law that will require voters to show identification at the polls beginning in 2016.
Ellie Kinnaird, an Orange County Democrat, resigned from the state Senate on Monday, citing what she called the Republican majority’s reversal of “progressive measures.”
Kinnaird said she plans to advocate for citizens from outside the state Senate and to work to ensure everyone has proper identification.   
“I am working with others on a grassroots project to make sure everyone in the state has a proper voter ID so that no votes are denied, even though the Voter ID bill is aimed at exactly that -- repressing the vote,” Kinnaird said.
The state’s more than 300,000 college students are particularly vulnerable to the Voter ID law because many of them often do not have driver’s licenses and, under the law, student identification cards won’t be accepted.