Kyle Brown, student government association president at Winston-Salem State University, addresses the Forsyth County Board of Elections.
by Jordan Green
The Republican-controlled Forsyth County Board of Elections declines to open an early-voting polling place on the campus of Winston-Salem State University and to accommodate early voting on Sunday — a day popular with black voters.
The Republican majority on the Forsyth County Board of Elections turned down a request from Winston-Salem State University students and others to reopen an early-voting site on campus for the March 15 primary during a contentious meeting on Thursday.
The plan recommended by the majority includes 11 sites across the county, almost equally divided by locations in the heart of Winston-Salem and outlying towns. The majority plan would allow seven days of early voting, including the last Saturday before Election Day.
Fleming El-Amin, the sole Democratic member of the board, said he intends to submit an alternate plan to the state Board of Elections. The state board, which is also controlled by the Republican Party, gets the final say. El-Amin’s plan would add the Anderson Center on the campus of Winston-Salem State University and provide the opportunity to vote on one Sunday, accommodating a tradition of the black church known as “Souls to the Polls.” Neither plan includes the first Saturday of March.
The Anderson Center was eliminated as an early-voting site in 2013, after Republicans took control of the board.
Student Government Association President Kyle Brown submitted a petition with 530 signatures gathered in five days calling for Anderson Center to be reopened as an early-voting site. Reading aloud from the petition, Brown said removing the polling place “has decreased the voting turnout by students drastically.” The petition noted that the students are currently faced with a choice of going downtown to vote at the government center during early voting or voting at their precinct at the Sims Recreation Center on Election Day. Both locations are more than two miles away separated from campus by Highway 52.
“The right to vote is a natural right for every citizen of the United States, and the number of students that are disenfranchised by this polling site change is completely disappointing,” Brown said. “Freshman students cannot bring vehicles onto the campus of WSSU and many other students do not have the means of transportation at WSSU.”
The current enrollment at the historically black university is 5,105. The Winston-Salem NAACP and the Voting Rights Coalition joined the students in requesting that the polling place be reopened. Speakers noted that the site also serves residents who live off Reynolds Park Road and Waughtown Street, as well as students at Salem College and UNC School of the Arts.
Ken Raymond, the chair of the board, said he could not support adding the Anderson Center as a polling site because of alleged election law violations that he observed there as a poll-worker in 2010.
“During that time many of [the students] were discussing openly among themselves and with others and even with me how they were receiving rewards for voting — they were receiving grades from faculty members about voting. And as an election official, that’s an election law violation.”
After the meeting, Raymond cited a state election law that makes it a felony “for any person to give or promise or accept at any time, before or after any such primary or election, any money, property or other thing of value whatsoever in return for the vote of any elector.” The law does not spell out whether the “thing of value” must be given in exchange for a vote for a particular candidate or party, or simply to reward the act of voting, regardless of the candidate or party. Lonnie Albright, an assistant attorney with Forsyth County, said the law appears to be written broadly to prohibit both kinds of activities.
Raymond also cited a news report that professor Larry Little allowed Winston-Salem City Council candidate Derwin Montgomery to speak to his class, after which Montgomery arranged transportation to the polls during the 2013 election as reason for additional concern.
While encouraging students to vote at Sims Recreation Center and the government center, Raymond added, “I cannot knowingly support a site where we may have another violation occur again.”
The Republican majority declined a request by El-Amin to add four hours on Sunday, March 6 for “Souls to the Polls.”
“It’s almost like a festive occasion,” El-Amin said. “Because the right to vote is one that our people basically died for. It’s like a cultural tradition in the community. We used to have pretty good turnout.”
As a gauge of the popularity of early voting on Sunday in the black community, the election access group Democracy North Carolina reported that while African Americans made up 29 percent of the electorate in the 2012 election, they accounted for 39 percent of the early voters who voted on the last two Sundays before Election Day.
As part of a massive overhaul of state election law in 2013, the Republican-controlled General Assembly voted to shorten the early-voting period from 17 to 10 days. Historian Allan J. Lichtman testified in the federal trial challenging the election law in Winston-Salem in July that African Americans have disproportionately used early voting. Similarly, political scientists Michael C. Herron and Daniel A. Smith wrote in a report entitled “Race, Shelby County and the Voter Information Verification Act in North Carolina” that “the early voting electorate in North Carolina is disproportionately black on weekends compared to the registered voter population in North Carolina.”
US District Judge Thomas Schroeder has yet to rule on the case. The Advancement Project, one of the plaintiffs, is predicting that the ruling “will have sweeping consequences for the state of voting rights nationwide.”
Fred Falin, a poll worker with eight years of experience, warned the Forsyth County Board of Elections that the voter ID requirement, which goes into effect during the upcoming election, is likely to slow down lines. Last summer, the General Assembly amended the law to allow voters who believe they have a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining an ID to sign a declaration and establish their eligibility at a later date. Such voters will have to cast provisional ballots, which will each need to be reviewed and approved by the board of elections before being counted.
Considering the number of people who can be expected to show up at the polls without ID, Falin suggested that each polling site be equipped with four laptop computers, with one set aside for provisional ballots. Three computers are typically assigned to each early-voting site in presidential election years.
Interim Elections Director Lamar Joyner said he will do his best to make sure each site has adequate equipment.
Falin also warned that many of the poll workers are new and relatively inexperienced, and will need training to know how to accommodate voters without ID.
El-Amin and others also warned that intense interest in the presidential primary, especially on the Republican side, is likely to draw large numbers of the voters, while the length of the ballot — which also includes a US Senate race, governor and council of state positions, along with county commission, city council and local judges — is likely to slow down the process.
The effect of reducing early-voting days was seen on the final day of early voting — a Saturday — before the 2014 general election, when people lined up in the rain outside the Forsyth County Government Center, some waiting as long as three and a half hours to vote.
All three board members concurred that it was wise to keep all the polling places open for early voting prior to the March 15 primary.
“What I would have in mind is a plan where we would use the last Saturday — have all the sites open on the last Saturday,” said Stuart Russell, one of the Republican members, “and use the hours there to kind of cover the weekend hours. That way we would avoid the scenario we had last time, which was it was the last day, we were having some long lines and it was a problem.”