BOONE — Occasionally drowned out by the sound of passing cars, Ashley Blevins’ voice was barely audible as she stood on the side of a road — with no sidewalk — that leads to the roadway entrance of the voting site here for what is now the third-largest voting precinct in North Carolina.
“I don’t like this road because, as you can see, there are cars that are just, like, flying by us and there’s no space to walk next to the road,” Blevins, a junior at Appalachian State University, said last week.
If Blevins wants to cast a ballot, she can no longer use the Plemmons Student Union on campus. The Republican-dominated Watauga County Board of Elections eliminated it last week along with a second voting site, at the county government building, citing the need to ease confusion among voters about where to cast ballots. The two voting sites were folded into a site at the Agricultural Conference Center.
“I feel like the people (students) who really care might come all the way out here to vote, but I know a lot of people who are like, ‘eh, it’s too far — I don’t think I’m going to walk that far,’ because they don’t really have another way of getting here,” Blevins said.
The newly formed Boone precinct has more than 9,300 voters.
Only two other precincts in North Carolina are larger, according to Bob Hall, the executive director of the elections watchdog group Democracy N.C. One precinct in Onslow County had 10,024 voters, and another in Harnett County had 10,183, as of July 1, according to Hall.
Asked whether the conference center can handle the newly formed Boone precinct, Luke Eggers, the chairman of the Watauga elections board said that it can.
“Our decision to relocate this polling place was not made lightly. In evaluating our alternatives, I considered the ease of access to the polls, the logistics involved with the various possible locations, the demands on elections staff and university staff, the handicapped accessibility of the sites, and other logistical concerns. I am confident that this location will provide an appropriate voting location, and will be an equitable and accessible polling place for all eligible voters,” Eggers said.
Democrats strongly disagree, pointing to the busy road with no sidewalks, fewer than 30 clearly marked parking spaces and the lack of public transportation leading to the conference center.
The local public bus system — known as AppalCART — does not stop directly in front of the conference center. Even if people took the bus to vote, they’d have to walk on a busy two-lane road with no sidewalk to get to the entrance road of the conference center, they say.
“It really isn’t anywhere near the AppalCART stops,” said Kathleen Campbell, the only Democrat on the three-member elections board.
Before consolidation, the Plemmons Student Union — once known as the Boone 2 precinct — had 3,660 active and inactive voters, according to Jane Hodges, the director of the county elections board. The county government building site — once known as the Boone 1 precinct – had 1,889. And the agricultural conference center — once known as the Boone 3 precinct — had 3,791, according to Hodges.
Combined, the new precinct has 9,340 active and inactive voters. Inactive voters are those who have not cast ballots in the past two state elections, according to county election officials.
“To combine these three established precincts … is going to create an impossible situation on Election Day,” Mayor Loretta Clawson said in a letter to the N.C. State Board of Elections. “I thought we were working to make it easier for our residents to vote and now what they are doing is making it difficult if not impossible for many of our citizens, especially Boone and ASU student voters, to even be able to vote.”