BOONE — Letters from Watauga County Board of Elections Chairman Bill Aceto and county attorney Four Eggers indicate they believe a single early voting site at the Watauga County administration building would meet requirements for the 2016 presidential election.
The Watauga County Voting Rights Task Force, a group of citizens affiliated with the local Democratic Party, on Aug. 25 issued a statement condemning the letters and recent actions as “deliberate voter suppression.”
The letters come after an Aug. 4 state board of elections memo advised that local boards would not be required to operate multiple early voting sites in the wake of a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that overturned 2013 voting law changes.
Among the voting provisions struck down was the shortening of the state’s early voting period from 17 days to 10 days. But the court decisions, according to the SBOE, also nullified a provision in the 2013 law requiring local boards to offer the same number of early voting hours during the shortened early voting period as was offered locally during the 2012 election.
“County boards will not be required to have additional sites, nor will they be required to have any additional sites open the same number of hours and days,” the memo from SBOE Director Kim Strach said. “However, we strongly encourage county boards of elections to be mindful of expected turnout and historical use of one-stop early voting in their respective counties.” Data indicates that 56 percent of voters this election will vote early, reducing Election Day lines, she said.
The memo advised that previously submitted early voting plans were invalid and outlined five options for local boards in submitting their early voting schedules. The first four options included extending previously submitted hours to the entire 17-day period; adding only the elections board or designated “in lieu” site for the additional week; adopting a new plan for the elections board site and additional sites; or adopting a plan using the elections board or “in lieu” site only, but with extended hours and/or weekend hours.
The fifth, Option E, was: “If a county board does not take action to vote on a plan, all one-stop early voting will take place only during regular business hours at the county board office and on the last Saturday until 1 p.m.”
Eleven days later, the three-member Watauga elections board held a special meeting to consider an early voting plan. While the plans considered by the board included a site at the administration building as well as several sites throughout the county, at issue was the location of a proposed site at Appalachian State University.
Aceto, the Republican chair, made a motion to approve his early voting plan that included a site at the Legends music venue, which local Democrats and ASU leaders opposed. Neither Republican member Nancy Owen nor Democratic board member Stella Anderson seconded, and the motion failed. Anderson’s motion for a plan with a site at the ASU student union also failed for lack of a second.
The board adjourned without approving a plan.
The Watauga board’s inability to agree on an early voting plan is not without precedent, and in recent years, 2-1 votes along party lines automatically sent the plans to the state board for review due to lack of unanimity.
N.C. General Statutes § 163-227.2(b) holds that one-stop absentee voters “shall appear in person only at the office of the county board of elections, except as provided in subsection (g) of this section,” which outlines procedures for adopting early voting plans at one or more sites in the county.
“If a county board of elections has considered a proposed plan or plans for implementation and has been unable to reach unanimity in favor of a plan, a member or members of that county board of elections may petition the (SBOE) to adopt a plan for it,” the subsection states.
In an Aug. 22 memo from Eggers to county Elections Director Matt Snyder, Eggers advised that if the state board did not adopt a plan for Watauga County and the elections office was required to serve as the county’s only early voting site, the county administration building — located in a separate building next door and at a different address — “would qualify as part of the the county board of elections office for the purposes of N.C. G.S. § 163-227.2(b).”
Eggers based his conclusion on the fact that the board regularly holds meetings at the administration building and that the building has been used for early voting and Election Day voting sites in the past.
In an Aug. 24 letter to Strach, Aceto said, “The Watauga County Board of Elections adopted neither a majority or minority plan for early voting in the upcoming election. As I read the statute governing this election, 163-227.2 in effect at this time means that early voting will occur only at the county board of elections office since no early voting plan was adopted for our county.”
But Aceto expressed uncertainty “as to whether a board member may still petition the state board for adoption of an early voting plan ... please advise me at your earliest convenience on the conclusion of the state board regarding their authority to consider these under the statute governing counties that failed to have any plan at all.”
Hedging his bets, Aceto added, “while I believe this default option would be adequate for Watauga County based on the data ... in the event the state board of elections feels it has the authority to set an alternate early voting plan based on these facts, I wanted to present my proposal in the event they do consider this matter.”
In its statement, the Watauga Voting Rights Task Force said its attorneys disagreed with Eggers’ assertion that the administration building could legally be considered as part of the board of elections office. The task force called on the county to fire Eggers as attorney for what it alleged was “intentional misrepresentation of the law for partisan purposes.”
“The bottom line is that the majority members of the Watauga County Board of Elections are willing to throw out every single early voting site for the November presidential elections in Deep Gap, Western Watauga, Blowing Rock and Meat Camp just to prevent those who wish to vote at an ASU student union site from doing so,” said the statement from Pam Williamson, on behalf of the group.
Garrett Price contributed reporting to this article.