Districting issues at local college influence voting, laws

By Joanna Woodson – Staff Writer – [email protected]
The idea for the recently proposed Equalize Voter Rights Act came after Warren Wilson College experienced a fiasco that changed the results of a local election, according to Cathy Kramer, dean at the Service Program Office of Warren Wilson College.
“We registered everyone to vote, but before this election redistricting had happened, and the county commission districts were drawn so that our students were in two different districts. The line went right down the middle of our campus,” Kramer said.
Many decried the Equalize Voter Rights Act as an attempt to curb the college vote, Kramer said.
Prior to redistricting, the students living on campus traditionally used the mailing room as the campus-wide mailing address to register to vote, instead of their physical dorm room address. Now that the campus was split by two districts, this is a problem, an error caught by the board of elections, which required many of the students to cast another ballot as a provisional ballot, according to Kramer.
“They said we needed to have our students registered by residence halls. So at that point, we gave the board of elections a housing list where everyone lived,” Kramer said. “They went back and viewed our early voting ballots and gave those students who voted in the wrong district an opportunity to re-file their ballots.”
Buncombe County district two is where Ellen Frost (D) ran against Christina Merrill (R) for a seat on the county commission.
Before the Warren Wilson provisional ballots were counted, Merrill was winning the election by more than 80 votes. When provisional and absentee ballots were counted, Frost won by 13 votes.
“They gave all of those who had done early voting provisional ballots because they couldn’t update their database fast enough,” she said. “Once the provisional votes were counted, it changed the outcome of the election.”
Merrill wanted the illegal votes – the votes of students who started out voting in district one but were able to change their ballots to district two – to be thrown out. This would have made up her 13 vote loss, but her protest was denied.
“One thing they said was that they couldn’t confirm, because of the address list, that students voted in the right district. They were questioning whether our housing list was accurate record,” Kramer said.
Before this election, the Buncombe County Commissioners Office was controlled by Republicans, but after the confusion at Warren Wilson, power shifted to the Democrats 4-3.
With this election cycle passed, Republicans Bill Cook, Norman Sanderson and Ronald Rabin say they want to clarify the residency laws in order to prevent this type of confusion in the future, and in doing so they created the Equalize Voting Rights resolution.
“The logic is that students at a university are temporary residents, and as temporary residents they have very little interest in what goes on in local politics,” said Bill Sabo, a professor of political science at UNC Asheville.
College students are the only group in America to have the right to vote at a place other than their permanent address. No other class – including teachers, military personnel, dual residence retirees and business owners – has this luxury, according to the Voter Integrity Project.
“It turns out this is philosophically consistent with the position that immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to vote because they’re temporary residents, they’re really not citizens,” Sabo said. “What is interesting about this is it is an attempt at coercion, and it is coercion in the most successful form, because it’s dealing with people’s wallets.”
The Equalize Voter Rights Act does not break the law that states college students have the right to vote wherever they choose to go to school; however, there is no law that solidifies tax exemptions for parents who claim their college student children as dependents.
“It is an interesting strategy. It makes perfect economic sense and it is defensible. It is defensible because if you are a transient resident, should you really have an influence in local politics? But to a greater extent, everyone is a transient resident, given the highly mobile society in which we live,” Sabo said.
This resolution is just part of the overall Senate Bill 666, which makes major changes in all future elections. The plan includes clarification of residential addresses that may be used for voting, repealing same-day voter registration, limiting early voting to 10 days and eliminating satellite early voting sites.
“While I hear that this is an initiative to save money, I believe it may actually be a bill trying to stifle college students getting to the polls,” said Casee Nelson, a junior psychology student at UNCA. “It takes away my free will to choose where I want to vote, but if it passes, I will go home and vote.”
The argument Sen. Cook gave for eliminating days of early voting is, each day of early voting costs the North Carolina government $98,000.
“I definitely think this will lessen the numbers of student turnouts at colleges,” Nelson said.
Traditionally, many college students, low-income residents and minorities are the groups that use early voting the most, according to the Center for American Progress.
“One of the big dangers is taking an ad hoc event like the one at Warren Wilson and using that to make general policy on. It’s an attempt to correct one little situation with a major overhaul of policy,” Sabo said. “That and the elimination of the tax deduction mean that, even though there are votes for it, the act has a reasonable but not a clear chance of success.”