Watauga elections board votes to restore voting precincts

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

FILE IMAGE: Kathleen Campbell, the minority member on the Watauga Board of Elections, holds up a photo of a newly constructed meeting room on the campus of Appalachian State University on Wednesday, September 4, 2013. The majority members, Luke Eggers (left) and Bill Aceto (center), rejected the proposed site as a polling place, instead voting for the Legends building, which is on campus and comes with a slew of issues, according to school officials. (Bertrand M. Gutierrez/Journal)

BOONE, N.C. — The Watauga County Board of Elections voted Wednesday to restore Boone’s three voting precincts and to select a polling place on the campus of Appalachian State University, though it is a voting site that was met with resistance from a crowd that was allowed to express its opposition only in writing.

The board voted 2-1 to select the Legends building as the polling place, with Republicans Luke Eggers and Bill Aceto favoring the site and Democrat Kathleen Campbell opposing. The building is on the corner of King Street and U.S. 321.

The vote comes after Kim Strach, executive director of the N.C. State Board of Elections, expressed concern about a previous plan supported by Eggers and Aceto that would have established one polling place for what would have been North Carolina’s third-largest voting precinct, while eliminating a polling place at ASU and at the county government building.

The newly formed Boone precinct would have had more than 9,300 voters. As of July 1, only two other precincts in North Carolina are larger: one precinct in Onslow County, with 10,024 voters, and another in Harnett County, with 10,183, according to the elections watchdog group Democracy N.C

“They could not combine the precincts without my approval,” Strach said Tuesday, adding that any effort to move a polling place outside a voting precinct must first be approved by her office. “I had been reviewing” the plan, she said. “I had concerns about the plan … and I did express my concerns.”

On Wednesday, Eggers and Aceto said that the Legends building’s location can provide access for all “demographics” – not just college students – and its structure is well suited to establish the state-mandated 50-foot buffer against electioneering, or campaigning. An alternative polling place proposed by Campbell in the Plemmons Student Union would make it difficult to prevent electioneering within the buffer, according to Eggers and Aceto.

“Electioneering is my main concern,” Aceto said after the meeting. “I think it’s very difficult to establish the buffers at the student union. I think it’s almost impossible. There’s a lot of traffic flow in and out of the student union on a daily basis, with students, faculty – it’s not just voters. Legends would be dedicated just for voters on that day. There’ll be no confusion where to go – where to vote.”

Dave Robertson, the ASU director of Student Programs and the Plemmons Student Union, warned that the Legends building has problems.

Flooding and power outages are two potential problems. The building, which is on the corner of King Street and U.S. 321, has flooded three times in the last 10 months, Robertson said during the board meeting. Water rises 1-3 inches when it floods, he said in a Sept. 3 letter to Kim Strach, the executive director of the N.C. State Board of Elections.

“If this occurred when in use for an election, it would require the closing of the precinct,” he said in the letter.

In addition, Legends has no back-up generator for emergency power.

“In the event of a local power outage, the room would go dark and any electronic voting machines would lose power,” Robertson said.

Other concerns were raised: 16 door locksets would have to be changed to ensure the safety of voting machines; 26 students would lose two weeks’ wages if Legends becomes an early-voting site; and there is no ventilation system except for some large intake fans, according to Robertson.

Besides, Campbell said, it functions as a nightclub where students bring their own beer, a point that Robertson also highlighted in his letter to Strach.

“The atmosphere would be less than dignified as a polling place in my opinion and disrespectful to those who might object to voting in a ‘bar,’” Robertson said.

Linville Falls, a newly constructed meeting room in the student union, would be better suited as a polling place, he said, especially since access to the student union has been improved for people with disabilities. That assessment was backed by Jane Hodges, the Watauga elections-board director, when asked which site – Linville Falls or Legends – was better for casting ballots.

Eggers and Aceto agreed that the Linville Falls site in the student union does not have the access problems that had been raised as concerns in years past, but they remained firm that the Legends building was the better choice.

“I think it’s more accessible for members of the community other than students,” Aceto said, referring to Legends. “As a board member, I’m going to look outside the box – not just at students but also at the entire community.”

The resolution selecting Legends now heads to Strach’s office for her consideration.

Credit: The Winston-Salem Journal