Guest columnist: Election chaos has effect on entire state

Dec. 21, 2012 @ 05:09 PM

A mid-December ruling by the State Board of Elections that allowed a do-over for some Buncombe County college students during early voting could wreak havoc in college towns all across the state.

The issue involved 175 Warren Wilson College students voting from their campus mailing facility (701 Warren Wilson Road in Asheville) instead of from their actual domiciles.

This type of registration happens at quite a few schools, like Duke, North Carolina Central, Wake Forest and School of the Arts, to name a few. It forces election employees either to hunt down the students’ physical addresses or to look the other way, letting students vote from their mailroom address; which appeared to be the Buncombe County Board of Elections practice for a “long time,” until it was busted.

On Oct. 30, a couple living together off campus asked election officials why they were in two different districts. While he had registered from his District 1 college mailbox, she used their home address, in District 2. The easy fix was to transfer his registration to his residential address.

But the Buncombe Board of Elections staff unilaterally fixed it for all of Warren Wilson’s heavily Democratic voters … halfway through the early voting period … by collaborating with school officials to verify each student’s physical address. They contacted the bright young kids, who had blissfully voted and even signed statements, swearing they "lived" at their mailroom address — but were invited to try again, only with their correct address this time.

The entire affair, now blessed by the State Board of Elections, prevented a loss of Democratic control of the County Board, as Republican Christina Merrill watched her 80-something vote lead flip into an 18-vote loss to Ellen Frost.

Now, unless the courts reverse the decision, any loser of a close college-town race might retroactively demand the Buncombe County rule be applied to their contest.

In Durham County, Duke has 723 students registered from just two campus addresses and N.C. Central has 430 voters registered at its 1801 Fayetteville Street mailroom. If any of those students live off-campus, or if any dormitories are in another ward, then there’s trouble. All three losing ward council candidates could sue. If a few dorms are found in Ward Two, the loser should demand those ballots be re-cast in Ward 2 instead of Ward 1, which is where the students’ mailboxes seem to be located.

An unpopular but prudent solution would either have been to let the students vote by absentee ballot from their home of record or for the Buncombe County Board of Elections to count their ballots as “partials,” only applying their votes for the bigger races but not the problematic district ones. Some would scoff at that, but let’s never forget how many college students don’t even qualify for in-state tuition. They can vote in local races without consequence and rarely pay local property taxes.

Election officials blew the call. Hopefully, the courts will appreciate this peril along with a few related issues involving the entire student-voting franchise: First, do college students living at temporary addresses really have standing in local races? Second, are those young adults being politically manipulated by their college professors who can shape values with a bully pulpit and a grade book?

North Dakota addressed the issue by emancipating any students who voted locally, making them pay local property (i.e. car) taxes and barring their parents from claiming them as dependents on their state taxes. This way, the young adults own the consequences of local elections that increase taxes.

For the record, the Voter Integrity Project of NC opposes any non-military voters registering from a mailing address. Excepting the military, all voters should register from the same address they would give to their fire department or perhaps the pizza guy. This “where you lay your head” rule helps prevent a certain type of vote fraud where people live and vote in another state, while voting again, using a North Carolina mailing address.

The two big problems with applying the “where you lay your head” policy to the Buncombe race are 1) it’s never a good idea to change the rules halfway through early voting ;and 2) applying the new policy to all recent local elections in North Carolina’s college towns could open the door to lawsuits springing up like … well … kudzu.

Regardless of the court’s eventual ruling on this case, the General Assembly should create a uniform policy that helps prevent otherwise disinterested (but possibly agitated) students from skewing the results of local elections.

Jay DeLancy is executive director of the Voter Integrity Project of North Carolina, a non-partisan organization that researches and advises on election law reform to ensure that all elections are conducted in a free and fair manner and that no voters are disenfranchised.