With only a few days remaining before Election Day, the Buncombe County Board of Elections has failed to determine the proper ballot for 1,000 registered voters residing on the campus of Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, including students, faculty and staff.
As part of the once-a-decade redistricting process, the sprawling campus was divided into two separate Statehouse and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners districts last year by the N.C. General Assembly. For many years prior, the registered voting address for students and faculty living on the school campus was the same — 701 Warren Wilson Road — which corresponds to the college's mail facility. Voters living on the campus used that address in the May primary – the first election held after the lines were redrawn.
However, on Oct. 31, after more than a week of early voting had passed, school officials were informed that the mailing facility was no longer a valid address for voter registration for those living on campus. Instead, the Board of Elections said it must determine the address of each student's dormitory in order to provide them with the correct ballot, according to an email sent to students Nov. 1 by Cathy Kramer, the school's dean of service.
Students who live in dormitories located on the north side of Warren Wilson Road, which cuts through the middle of campus, now should be given ballots that allow them to vote in the N.C. Statehouse District 115 race and the District 2 Buncombe County Board of Commissioner's race, according to Trena Parker, the Buncombe County director of election services. Those living to the south of the road should be given ballots to vote in the N.C. Statehouse District 114 and District 1 Buncombe County Board of Commissioners race, she says.
Parker said her department sent out a letter today, Nov. 2, to all 1,000 voters registered at 701 Warren Wilson Road informing them of the change.
Meanwhile, residents registered at the address wishing to vote early are being asked by poll workers which side of Warren Wilson Road they live on, and are being forced to fill out provisional ballots, according to Parker. After the unofficial election results are tallied Nov. 6, the department will then determine if the provisional ballots filled out by those living at Warren Wilson corresponded to the correct district. If so, they would be included in the official tally when it's certified a week later, she says.
"Until we get a good address on them, and verify that address, they've got to vote provisionally," says Parker. "That doesn't mean it won't count. It just means we're going to make absolutely certain they've got the right ballot before it's counted."
But among many students and faculty at the private liberal arts school, the situation has stirred confusion and fear that their votes won't count.
"The fact that students received this information four days before the election is incredibly suspicious, as is the fact that this issue did not come up in the primary," says Warren Wilson Professor Ben Feinberg, who first became aware of the issue after hearing from students in a Nov. 2 class who were "confused and upset" about it.
"Voter suppression is not just preventing people from voting, but creating a climate of confusion that discourages people from voting," Feinberg continues. "And telling a large bloc of voters who overwhelmingly support a particular candidate or perspective that their address is not their address, after many days of early voting and just before the election smells like an intentional effort to confuse and discourage voters."
Parker says that the local department has been following the instructions of the state board of elections since becoming aware of the discrepancy between the mailing address and location of the dormitories earlier this week.
"In the voting world, we have to have a resident's address," she says. "We have to know where you lay your head at night, so we can give you the correct ballot."
Due to last year's redistricting by the N.C. General Assembly, the Buncombe County Board of Elections is charged with administering more than 20 different ballots in different parts of the county. The process led to "a lot of changes to the database," says Parker. "The database is huge. We tried our best to find every little residence that was supposed to go on the right side. And occasionally we miss something," she adds.
"It's unfortunate, but we've done our best to make sure everyone gets a chance to vote for who they're supposed to vote for," she continues. "It's all about making sure their vote counts in the right place."
The first Republican majority in the history of the N.C. General Assembly drew the new district lines across the state and county in ways intended to benefit its party politically, many observers have claimed.
In August, Warren Wilson was ranked the "most liberal college" in the country by Newsweek and College Prowler.
UPDATE, Published at about 3 P.M. on Nov. 3: Some students being told they must vote twice
The Buncombe County Board of Elections is canceling ballots cast by some Warren Wilson College students who voted during early voting before local officials informed them that their registration address was invalid.
In a Nov. 2 email to students from Board of Elections Information Specialist Jennifer Sparks and forwarded to Xpress, she wrote: "In order to assure that you have received the correct ballot style for the 2012 General Election, we need for you to provide our office with your residence address in Buncombe County as soon as possible."
After complying with the request, WWC student Caroline Ellis Duble was informed by Sparks that the one-stop absentee ballot provided to her for early voting was incorrect, based on her previous registration address of 701 Warren Wilson Road. To rectify the matter, Sparks informed Duble that she would have to vote again using a new ballot that correctly corresponds to her updated address. Sparks offered to mail her another absentee ballot and informed her of her correct polling place on election day, if she preferred to vote in person.
"So I need to go to that address on Election Day and just vote as if I haven't yet?" writes Duble, seeking clarification from Sparks on Nov. 2.
"That is correct," responds Sparks. "I have cancelled your one-stop absentee ballot so that you will be able to cast your new ballot. If you choose to vote on Election Day you will need to go to the address that I provided and give them your updated address information."
Sarah Zambon, a lawyer who is currently serving as treasurer for the campaign of incumbent Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, a Democrat, tells Xpress that she has informed a number of state organizations about the situation, including the UNC Law Election Protection Program, which she helped establish several years ago as a student. Other groups monitoring the situation include the UNC Center for Civil Rights and Democracy N.C., she says.
"People shouldn't be required to vote twice," she asserts. "If the elections are close, there could be legal actions that the parties could bring." Zambon adds that she's considering asking students who are being forced to fill out provisional ballots to fill out affidavits.
"No one should be getting provisional ballots," she adds. "It's very frustrating for these kids, many of whom might be voting for the first time. And this was all avoidable. These are things they [the Board of Elections] should've anticipated and they didn't."
Meanwhile, Reisinger reported via Twitter that on the morning of Nov. 3 — the last opportunity to cast early votes — "Warren Wilson students are coming out to vote by the bus load today at [early voting location] Bee Tree." In another dispatch, he wrote that one of the students told him that "… even the anarchists are coming out to vote due to the perceived voter suppression on campus."
However, all those Nov. 3 early voters were forced to vote using provisional ballots.
UPDATE on Nov. 5: Cathy Kramer, Warren Wilson Dean of Service, sent out an email to all of the school's students and employees updating them on the situation. Read her message here. That same day, Project Vote, a national nonpartisan voting rights group, sent out a press release and letter to Buncombe County and N.C. officials noting that it might consider taking legal actions.