WATAUGA — The Watauga County Board of Elections is taking a wait and see approach to how it deals with the North Fork precinct.
At its July 13 meeting — which included a public comment period — the board discussed how it would move forward with the North Fork precinct as they were having trouble finding election judges that lived in the precinct.
Snyder said that if they could not find judges the board would have to consolidate the precinct into one of the other precincts.
“After speaking with someone that is a native to the North Fork precinct, their thought was it’s easier to go up N.C. 88 and back down U.S. 421 to Zionville during bad weather, than it would be to try to come up over the mountain to Meat Camp,” Snyder said. “They suggested that we more strongly consider the Cove Creek precinct as an option (to consolidate North Fork into).”
The current voting location for North Fork voters is Edgar Eller’s garage, located at 271 South Road.
While some of the majority of the board members were on board with that idea of finding judges, Matt Walpol (Democrat) didn’t agree.
“This is not the first public meeting we’ve had on North Fork or the first public comment we’ve had,” Walpol told the board.
Walpol said that in previous years the board had sent out fliers and advertised for election judges for North Fork and had people agree to be a judge. However, the same problem arises each year, and the board has difficulty finding a judge from the precinct.
“We have a history of problems with North Fork,” Walpol said. “We don’t have the history of success when we’ve approached it in the past.”
In 2020, the polling place was shifted to a site in Meat Camp due to COVID-19. In the 2016 general election, 110 voters voted at the North Fork voting precinct with 64 voting on Election Day; in 2018, 95 people voted in North Fork with 51 of those voting on Election Day; and in 2020, when the voting site was in Meat Camp, 148 people voted in North Fork with 29 of those being on Election Day.
“One of the things we need to look at is we have an election where there was not a polling place in North Fork,” Walpol said. “That tells me that having the voters in North Fork vote somewhere else is not going to keep them from being able to vote.”
Walpol also mentioned the size of the precinct saying that if the board was creating a new precinct in the county, they would never establish one “that was 10 percent the size” of another precinct.
“I’m sorry, I just don’t think it’s a good use of taxpayer money, and I think we have no history of success when we brought up the problems in the past,” Walpol said.
A community member who lived in the precinct was one of the first people to speak at the meeting and said that she could find two people, including herself, to be an election judge.
Pete Catoe, another community member, didn’t agree with the notion that the board should dissolve the North Fork precinct. He said that it’s important to have equal protection for everyone, and that even though North Fork is a separate community, the board needs to do all it can to have the same convenience to voting that other residents, like students, have.
Chris Baron, a member of the Voting Rights Task Force, said that she and the task force do not want to see any precinct get eliminated or consolidated into another.
Nancy Owen and Eric Eller, both Republicans, agreed with some of what Walpol was saying, but did not agree that they should eliminate the precinct.
Eller said that if the board were to move the voting place for North Fork voters to a more centrally located area like a volunteer fire department, some voters would have to travel through Tennessee just to get there because of the geographic layout of the North Fork precinct.
“I mean, how in the world can we say we’re providing them a comparable opportunity to vote to the rest of the people in the county?” Eller asked.
Marvin Williamsen (Democrat) said that he agreed with points on both sides, but said the board should have a plan to find judges and identify a plan to train them in time for Election Day. If the board didn’t find judges in time, then Williamsen said they should have a plan and be prepared to move the precinct.
While board members did not take an official vote, they did decide to wait and see if they could find judges before deciding on whether or not to move the precinct.
The board also discussed the New River III voting site, as there was construction set to take place on Wilson Ridge Road slated to begin late this year. However, Watauga County Director of Elections Matt Snyder said that construction is now not planned to break ground until 2023.
“There’s a proposed road improvement project that connects U.S. 321 down Bamboo Road to Wilson Ridge Road to Deerfield Road,” Snyder said. “That construction project almost surgically divides the precinct in half.”
The main concern, Snyder said, was how the voters would get to the voting site with the construction occurring. Now that it’s happening at a later date, Snyder said the board doesn’t have to assess the issue right away.
A solution the board could potentially use for the New River III problem, Snyder said, would be to utilize NC General Statute 163-130.2, which allows the temporary use of two voting places for certain precincts
Though, in that statute there are seven key rules that have to be met in order to use the statute to create a second polling place. In this case, Eller said he believes the New River III precinct would meet all items except the first, which states that the precinct “has more registered voters than can adequately be accommodated by any single potential voting place available for the precinct.”
“While I think I can see a way around that part of the statute, it would be better to have a statute that we wouldn’t have to get around,” Eller said. “I think that maybe what we need to do is address our state representatives about the prospect of looking at that as being a change that needs to be made to the statute.”
The board decided that Eller would draft a letter to the state representatives, Sen. Deanna Ballard and Rep. Ray Pickett, to try and address the statute on the state level, as Eller said he believes other precincts could potentially have issues with a road going out in the precinct that could cause problems.
The board next met on July 20 to conduct a swearing in ceremony for the new members.