RALEIGH — Voting 3-2 along party lines, the N.C. State Board of Elections approved the Appalachian State University Plemmons Student Union as an early-voting site on Aug. 31.
The Watauga Board of Elections voted in July to submit a majority plan for early-voting sites that included the Blue Ridge Ballroom at the student union as well as a minority plan that included the Holmes Convocation Center instead. Watauga Board Chair Jane Ann Hodges presented the majority plan to the state board on Aug. 31 while board member Eric Eller presented the minority plan, according to Watauga Board of Elections Director Matt Snyder.
The board’s decision to submit plans for the student union as a voting site clashed with university officials, who stated that the space would not be available due to class use.
“We did communicate to them that it was going to be used for classroom space this semester due to the pandemic,” said Matt Dockham, App State’s director of external affairs and community relations, during an Aug. 10 meeting with Faculty Senate. “We provided guidance as to why that wasn’t going to be feasible this year.”
Dockham told Faculty Senate members that university officials took part in several phone calls and Zoom meetings with Hodges, other board members and elections office staff. The university offered other sites — such as the convocation center and the McKinney Alumni Center — to use as a polling site instead of the student union.
“I know a lot folks feel that Plemmons is always going to be the place, and the (Chancellor Sheri Everts) has said in the past that Plemmons is the No. 1 location,” Dockham said. “If everything is as it was in 2016, I think we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The world has changed, and we’re trying to do the best thing for the community.”
App State’s Faculty Senate voted on Aug. 17 to approve a resolution that stated the Blue Ridge Ballroom is a “critical” polling site for university students, faculty, staff and community members. With 36 votes in favor, one opposed and four abstentions, the resolution was passed.
Gayle Turner, an associate professor in the Department of Leadership and Educational Studies — sponsored the resolution, and said the resolution showed that faculty supported students in having an “accessible, safe and familiar voting site in these difficult times.”
Dockham said in a statement that the Aug. 31 decision by the State Board of Elections was "disappointing" after hearing about the board's vote.
"The university will continue to explore all options while maintaining its commitment to providing a safe space for on-campus voting," Dockham said.
Snyder said it was his understanding that the university must comply with the state board’s vote to use the Blue Ridge Ballroom for early voting. When asked if the board still needed to discuss this plan with the university, Snyder said, “I believe that we are now able to use that room for our early-voting site and Election Day.”
N.C. General Statute 163-227.6 dictates parameters for polling sites and hours for one-stop voting. It states that in providing a site or sites for one-stop absentee voting, the county board of elections shall make a request to the state, county, city, local school board or other entity in control of the building that is supported or maintained — in whole or in part — by tax revenues at least 90 days prior to the start of one-stop absentee voting under these sections.
“If the state, local governing board or other entity in control of the building ... responds negatively to the request within 20 days, that entity and the county board of elections shall, in good faith, work to identify a building or specific portion thereof in which to conduct one-stop absentee voting,” according to the statute. “If no building or specific portion thereof has been agreed upon within 45 days from the date the county board of elections received a response to the request, the matter shall be resolved by the State Board of Elections.”
Snyder said that 6,483 people participated in early voting in the Blue Ridge Ballroom during the 2016 general election with 401 voting at the site on Election Day. The state board strictly discussed the site for early voting, but Snyder said it’s the county’s plan to use it as an Election Day site as well.
With the state board’s approval, Snyder said he has activated the site in the county’s computer system so that the site is now searchable as an early-voting site by the public. Snyder said he received confirmation on Sept. 1 that all Election Day sites Watauga submitted to the state were approved as well.
County office staff will begin working on a public awareness campaign to let residents know where the early voting and Election Day sites are located, Snyder said. He added that the office will be mailing information to affected voters in the coming weeks of Election Day polling site location changes.
The elections office also received guidance on Sept. 1 related to curbside voting. Curbside voting will still be available to voters who are unable to enter a polling place due to age or a physical or mental disability. Guidance added new reasons as to why someone can use curbside voting. The additions include voters who have a medical condition that puts them at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19, those who should not wear a mask due to a medical or behavioral condition or disability and those who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.