Wake County Superior Court Chief Judge Donald W. Stephens declared the early voting plan unconstitutional, on the grounds that the move represented a “significant infringement of students’ rights to vote.”
He mandated that the state Board of Elections revise the plan to include an early voting site on campus for the midterm election. Early voting starts Oct. 23. The board can either accept the decision or appeal to a higher court.
In August, the board upheld the plan, rejecting an appeal by Kathleen Campbell, a Watauga Board of Elections member who opposed the voting site move. But a group of Watauga County residents and students appealed that decision.
Ian O’Keefe, a senior at ASU and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said for him, the issue is not just about student voters.
“I think this is partially about students, but I think the reason why we’re fighting is for voting rights in general,” he said.
O’Keefe is one of seven plaintiffs — five students and two community members — in the lawsuit. He said he believes the attempt to move the voting site off campus is a way for politicians in Watauga County to try to discourage young people from voting.
Pam Williamson, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said she became involved in the conflict in early spring 2013, when a group of residents formed the Watauga County Voting Task Force, a grass-roots group dedicated to fighting the voting site change.
“It’s been a hard fight, where we’ve been losing every inch of the way almost and yesterday we felt that justice was served,” she said.
Williamson said the proposed change to move the voting site to a location 20 minutes off campus would have made it more difficult for students to vote, due to lack of transportation and time constraints.
“They were deliberately trying to make it harder for students to vote, and that was the only explanation,” said Gerry Cohen, a now-retired special counsel to the N.C. General Assembly.
In March, the Orange County Board of Elections moved an early voting site off of UNC’s campus to North Carolina Hillel — but Cohen said the UNC site is still close to campus and accessible by public transit.
He added that voters in Watauga County are evenly split between the Democratic and Republican parties, whereas Orange County is a heavily Democratic area and is therefore less contested in elections.
Williamson said Watauga County has the largest number of registered student voters in the state.
“I have great faith in young people,” she said. “The future’s theirs, not mine.”
Carson Rich, ASU student body president, said he’s excited about the ruling.
“It was blatantly obvious that decisions had been made, previous to this one, to hinder student voting,” he said. “I think, regardless of people’s political beliefs or backgrounds, that is not right.”