CHAPEL HILL- Though the Orange County Board of Elections is struggling to find a site for on-campus early voting, members are adamant they’re not trying to limit student turnout.
Board Chair Kathy Knight says the three members are focused the logistics of the state’s new voting laws, not partisan politics.
“We are going out of our way to try to keep something close to campus,” says Knight. “We have other sites we could go to, but they’re too far off campus. We have put out to the university, to the students, that we are trying to come up with a place that is accessible to students and the public. So where that came up, that we don’t want it for the students, I don’t know.”
Ram’s Head Dining Hall was last year’s on-campus early-voting site, but Knight says it is not an option moving forward.
“We have problems with Ram’s Head,”says Knight. “We have to have so many hours and they all have to be open the same hours. You have ball games on Saturdays, which means we wouldn’t be able to be open because we wouldn’t have the parking. So there’s more than one problem with Ram’s Head.”
The Board is trying to comply with the provisions of House Bill 598 passed by the Republican-led General Assembly last summer.
Under the new law, the length of the early voting period is shortened from 17 to nine days, but sites are required to remain open the same total number of hours. All sites in the county must have identical schedules and provide the option of curbside voting.
With Ram’s Head out of the running, the Board is looking at the North Carolina Hillel Center as a possible site. Past early-voting locations such as Morehead Planetarium and University Square are no longer available due to recent or ongoing renovations.
The Board’s struggle to find a spot for on-campus early voting has drawn scrutiny from those who say Republicans elsewhere are actively working to limit student turnout.
Matt Hughes is the Chair of the Orange County Democratic Party. He says he’s seen a statewide push to disenfranchise young voters.
“It’s undeniable that youth voters tend to vote Democratic and I think that’s at play,” says Hughes. “I think there are those- not our Board of Elections staff- who would like to see the youth vote curtailed and I think there is a coordinated effort across the state to do just that. It’s evident whether you’re talking about Watauga County, Forsyth County or down east in Elizabeth City.”
Last August the Watauga Board of Elections shortened early voting to just four days and removed a polling place on Appalachian State campus.
But Hughes says he’s not sure that’s the aim of Orange County board members.
“I don’t believe that our local Board of Elections is seeking to curtail the youth vote, but we do need to make sure that we’re offering good customer service to our voters in making elections more accessible,” says Hughes.
A recent change in the make-up of the Orange County elections board is fanning the flames of suspicion among some local Democrats, as the three-member board is now Republican-dominated for the first time in twenty years.
That’s because local boards of elections are appointed by the state Board of Elections, and those appointments are made by the Governor. Currently all 100 county elections boards are comprised of one Democrat and two Republicans.
Jaime Cox is the lone Democrat on the Orange County board. He also rejects the notion that local board members are trying to limit student access to the ballot.
“We have a strong history of bipartisan cooperation in the county and I see that continuing this year,” says Cox.
But he acknowledges that reaching out to student voters while accommodating the new rules is proving difficult.
“It is a bit like piecing a puzzle together, trying to find a site that is close in proximity, but that also allows us to provide curbside voting as well as parking for members of the community that are not affiliated with campus or who don’t get around by walking or bicycle or bus,” says Cox.
Both Knight and Cox say they need help from the public to identify potential new sites for early voting on or near UNC’s campus, and with a mid-March deadline to submit those sites to the state Board of Elections for approval, time is running out.
The Orange County Board of Elections will meet February 4 to narrow down its list of early voting sites for the May primary.