US & Canada

US mid-term elections: North Carolina ballot box battle

Bill Aceto
Image caption Aceto said there remained plenty of other places for county voters to cast a ballot

When local Republicans stripped a polling station from a North Carolina university campus, students cried foul. They fought back against what they described as an attempt to suppress their vote - and won.

Underneath a crisp blue sky sit rows of mountains topped with forests that are every shade of autumn. It's an enviable view, one to which students at Appalachian State University (ASU) in the foothills of North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains are treated every day.

During a visit to campus this month, dozens were taking advantage of the unseasonably warm October, sunbathing and playing frisbee on the grassy area outside the student union building in the centre of campus.

"This is where we used to vote," said Ian O'Keefe, who studies political science and is heavily involved in the college Democrats.

Mr O'Keefe took me inside the sprawling student union building, a maze of restaurants, cafes and offices.

'More difficult'

This hub of activity had since 2006 been the location of a polling station for national elections, easily accessible for the 18,000 people who studied here.

The local elections board decided to remove ballot boxes from campus for this year's election, leaving the university without a site for early voting.

"It makes it more difficult for students to get out and vote at the end of the day," said Mr O'Keefe, who said the central location of the student union polling station was also convenient for faculty members. "I don't understand why someone would try to make something like voting more difficult."

The decision would have left students with a 20-minute journey to the nearest polling station, located half a mile (0.8km) away in the centre of Boone, the town in which this university sits.

It might seem like a short distance to travel, but Mr O'Keefe said it was not an easy journey to make. Students without a car must take a bus - or walk around campus by a busy road - to get to the station. And many said they lacked the time to go amid lectures and studies.

The plan meant there would be no polling place on campus for anyone wanting to cast a ballot ahead of Election Day - in what's known as the early voting period.

Voting ahead of time is increasingly popular in the US. Election Day is 4 November, but it is estimated that more than seven million votes have already been cast this year in this way. It is a method which has been credited with boosting turnout among younger voters.

"It logically makes sense to have a voting booth on campus, because during the weekday the majority of the population is found in campus in this area," said Carson Rich, the non-partisan student body president at the university.

Image caption But O'Keefe and Anderson said the move was plainly aimed at making it tougher for students to vote

ASU's population makes up about a third of voters in Watauga County, reason enough, said Mr Rich, for a site to be located here. Student turnout in previous elections in the county had been particularly high, a factor he attributed to the ballot boxes' convenient location.

"In a world where we are trying to make things more accessible, this right of accessibility is being taken away," he said.

But those behind the proposed changes said they were part of a wider plan to increase voter participation. Bill Aceto, the Republican secretary of the county elections board, showed me a map detailing the early voting locations in the area. While his plans removed the only one on campus, there remained five other polling stations in other parts of the county, including more remote rural areas.

"Having one urban location is more than adequate to fulfil the needs of our county," said Mr Aceto, who argued his measures placed a polling station within 5 miles (8km) of 90% of the jurisdiction. Students, he said, can walk off campus to cast an early ballot.

"There are plenty of opportunities," he said. "I don't buy into the mantra that we are restricting access."

'It is political'

But many argued the reason behind the changes was a partisan one. Nationally, the majority of students tend to vote Democrat, and Democrats elsewhere in North Carolina, and around the country, complain that Republicans are trying to make it harder for students to vote.

"It is political, there's no other explanation than an agenda," said Stella Anderson, a Democrat who used to sit on the county elections board. She saw the move as an effort by the Republicans to suppress the student vote.

More than 5,000 people voted early on the campus site in the 2012 presidential race, so the loss of a voting site could have an impact on turnout, which would disproportionately depress the Democratic vote and could decide a close race, Ms Anderson argued.

North Carolina is the site of a critical Senate race: incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan is in a close fight against Republican State House Speaker Thom Tillis. If the Republicans can wrest the seat from her, it will increase their chances of taking control of the US Senate from the Democratic Party.

The evidence on how and whether votes are affected by changes like the one in Watauga County is mixed, but Ms Anderson and Mr O'Keefe said it reflected wider changes to voting laws which have been introduced across the US in Republican-controlled states.

Until last year, jurisdictions which had a history of voting discrimination (southern states predominantly, including nearly half of North Carolina's counties) had to clear any changes in their voting laws with the US government, under the Voting Rights Act of the Civil Rights era. In 2013, parts of that act were overturned by the US Supreme Court, paving the way for states to amend their voting procedures.

North Carolina passed a bill which reduced early voting days, scrapped same-day voter registration, and from 2016, required that voters show identification before casting a ballot.

Across America measures have been introduced, from Texas to Ohio, which Democrats argue are designed to suppress turnout. They say changes, such as the introduction of voter ID laws, target their core voter base. In North Carolina student identity cards do not count as a valid form of ID. In Texas you can vote if you have a gun permit, but not using your university ID.

Those behind these changes say they're intended to crack down on voter fraud - critics say it's cracking down on an imaginary problem, as almost no examples of in-person voter fraud have surfaced.

Image caption Nationally, students tend to vote Democratic; The Watauga County Democratic Party office in Boone

In Watauga County, Mr O'Keefe and Ms Anderson took their case to court, arguing that voting should be allowed on campus.

A few weeks after I visited them, Superior Court Judge Donald Stephen agreed and threw out Mr Aceto's plan. Judge Stephen said the decision not to include a site on the ASU campus was unconstitutional, with all evidence suggesting it was indeed intended to discourage students from voting.

"The court does feel strongly that government should make every effort to encourage [student] voters, and every group of voters to vote. It is the responsibility of government to minimise inconvenience in voting, not maximise it," he said.

His ruling prompted a flurry of appeals, and with just over 12 hours to go before early voting began across North Carolina, the state board of elections announced a final decision.

Early voting began on campus last week. Mr O'Keefe tells me more than a thousand votes have already been cast.

Listen to America's Ballot Battles at 20:00 BST on Monday 27 October on BBC Radio 4 or on Tuesday 28 October on the BBC World Service.