Elections board approves of student in dorm running for city council

Sep. 03, 2013 @ 08:25 PM

RALEIGH — The North Carolina Board of Elections says a student at Elizabeth City State University can run for the city council, overturning a local ruling many had seen as a partisan attempt to disenfranchise college students.

The Republican-majority state board voted unanimously Tuesday to allow Montravias King to run for the seat representing the ward that includes the campus. The vote reversed an earlier decision made by the GOP majority on the Pasquotank County Board of Elections.

King left the hearing to the cheers of supporters, many of whom had packed the meeting room for the two-hour hearing to decide his case.

"Justice has prevailed," said King, a senior with plans to attend law school. "I am not entirely surprised about the decision today. We knew we were on the right side of the law and the Constitution."

King's case garnered national attention due to concern the initial ruling by the county board was part of a larger statewide effort by Republicans to discourage turnout among young voters considered more likely to support Democrats.

In a separate vote Tuesday, the state elections board split 4-1 to uphold a decision by the GOP-controlled Watauga County elections board to eliminate a popular early-voting site on the campus of Appalachian State University in Boone.

Pete Gilbert, the chairman of the Pasquotank County Republican Party, had challenged the residency of King based on him living in a campus dorm for the bulk of the academic year, returning to his family home in Snow Hill for holidays. King has been registered to vote in Pasquotank, using his campus address, since enrolling at the historically black college in 2009, and he says he plans to stay in the Elizabeth City after graduation.

Gilbert told the Associated Press last month that he planned to use the local election board's ruling that a dorm address does not qualify as a permanent residence to challenge the voter registrations of other students at the historically black college. He also said he planned to encourage other GOP chairs in areas with large student populations to do the same.

State elections board chairman Josh Howard, a Raleigh lawyer and Republican, said Tuesday that Gilbert's position that one must live in the same place 365 days a year to qualify as a permanent resident would potentially disenfranchise many other people as well, including active-duty military personnel who deploy overseas. The finding of the Pasquotank board that King was not a qualified resident violated long-established court rulings establishing the rights of college students to register to vote where they live under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the elections chairman said.

In the second appeal heard by the state board Tuesday, the new Republican majority on the Watauga County elections board voted along party lines to combine the three Boone voting precincts into one "super precinct," eliminating an Election Day polling site on campus. More than 9,300 Boone residents will now be slated to cast ballots at a county building that only has about 35 parking spots.

The Watauga board also voted in the same contentious meeting to eliminate early voting at the Appalachian State student union, the most highly utilized early-voting site in the mountainous county. About one third of the registered voters in Boone are college students.

The board's lone Democrat, Kathleen Campbell, appealed both decisions to the state board. She said Tuesday that she believes both moves were part of a larger push to make casting a ballot inconvenient for groups likely to vote for Democrats, especially college students.

With the inauguration of Gov. Pat McCrory in January, Republicans took control of elections boards statewide for the first time in 20 years. A new law passed by the GOP-controlled North Carolina legislature and signed by McCrory last month requires voters to have specific forms of government-issued photo identification to cast a ballot, though student IDs from state-run colleges will not be accepted. The law also contains more than 40 other provisions, including ending same-day voter registration and trimming the period for early voting from 17 days to 10.

Watauga County elections board chair Luke Eggers announced Tuesday he and fellow GOP board member Bill Aceto would withdraw their heavily criticized plan to combine the three Election Day precincts into one.

The state board debated for more than an hour the remaining issue of eliminating the early voting site on the ASU campus before voting 4-1 to uphold the local decision. Democratic member Josh Malcolm, a Robeson County lawyer, sided with the GOP majority that a proposed nearby early voting site in a county office building met the requirements of state law.

But Malcolm and Chairman Howard also publically chastised the Watauga board's Republican majority for the ramrod fashion in which they pushed through the voting changes. An online video of the Watauga board's meeting last month — marked by verbal barbs, occasional cursing and possible violations of state open meetings laws — has been viewed more than 35,000 times.

"You guys need to learn to get along," Howard said. "We don't want to see you on YouTube again."