BOONE, N.C. – If Appalachian State University students want to vote, most of them will have to take a longer walk to the polls.
At their August 12 meeting, the Watauga County Board of Elections, made up of two Republicans and one Democrat, voted to combine Boone’s three precincts into one. This means the polling place at the Plemmons Student Union on campus will no longer be used for voting of any kind. Starting in November, the only polling place open in Boone on election day will be at the Watauga County Agricultural Center on the town’s west side.
The move makes it harder for students to vote. In the video above, NBC Charlotte walked from the student union to the new polling place. It took 17 minutes. Part of Poplar Grove Road, which is one way the Watauga County elections director recommends getting from campus to the polling place, has no sidewalks. Another route to the center, up King Street, would require voters to walk down a gravel driveway on a hillside, or through the parking lot of an ambulance garage-- the latter is not recommended by the elections director.
WATCH Part II:
The precinct now has 9,340 active and inactive voters in it. That makes it, according to Democracy North Carolina, the third largest precinct in the state. The polling place has 28 parking spaces.
“I would have to make time for it. I wouldn’t be casually going,” said Emily Oswalt, an ASU senior from Matthews. “At the Union, you’re here.”
Republicans were entitled to a two person majority on the board after Republican Pat McCrory became governor. Luke Eggers, brother of former elections board member and current Watauga County Attorney Stacy ‘Four’ Eggers, was appointed to the board on Wednesday, August 7. On August 8, he was sworn in. The next day, he announced a specially called meeting to change several precincts and early voting locations in Watauga County. At that August 12 meeting, fellow Republican Bill Aceto voted him chairman. The meeting, which was attended by dozens of people who frequently interrupted the board, was taped by Democratic activists in Boone. It also got attention from national media, including MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
The meeting was so contentious that Kathleen Campbell, the lone Democrat on the three-person board, voted not to approve the minutes from the August 12 meeting, usually a routine procedure.
And the changes?
“It makes it more efficient. It makes it easier for us to canvass, makes it easier for us to staff,” said Eggers. When asked if the changes make it easier for the board of elections, or if they make it easier for voters, Eggers replied that it would be easier for both.
“I cannot say that it would save time or money,” said Jane Ann Hodges, who has been Watauga County’s Elections Director for 27 years. She said the changes themselves would not make elections more efficient.
“It would be challenging for us to vote 9,000 people in one location,” she said.
“I think it makes it more difficult for people to vote,” said Dr. Adam Newmark, an associate professor of political science at Appalachian State. “When you convert three precincts into one, you’re going to have logistical problems. You’re going to have longer wait times, you’re going to have people having trouble finding parking.”
In 2012, Watauga County narrowly went to Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president, who won by 859 votes. But the county sharply split between Boone, which went to Obama, and the rural areas, which went to Romney.
“In 2010, the Republicans won,” said Campbell. “It’s not impossible for them to win. They won. In a fair system. So why are they trying to cheat?”
Republicans pointed out that because of early voting, turnout at Boone’s three polling places had been low on Election Day, around 10.5 percent. But early voting at the ASU student union had been high. While only 519 votes were cast there on Election Day 2012, 5,326 used the student union to vote early. Under the changes made by the county board of elections, the only early voting location for November's municipal election in Boone is now at the Watauga County Administration Building on King Street.
Eggers said that location would be more accessible and more efficient. But at the August 12th meeting, Hodges said she had already budgeted for two early voting locations. Consolidating two into one, and effectively doubling the amount of voters in that location, would present challenges, she said. "But we're going to do it," Hodges told NBC Charlotte. "And we're going to do a great job."
The early voting location would only be for the upcoming municipal election. It's currently under appeal, and has yet to be approved by the State Board of Elections. Still, the moves leave Appalachian State University without a polling place for the first time in decades.
“I would find it a strange coincidence if this weren’t entirely politically motivated,” said Newmark. “The campus tends to vote slightly more Democratic. This is going to make it much more difficult for students to vote.”
An earlier version of this story said that Oswalt had voted on campus in 2012. A check of voting records showed that she had voted absentee in that election.