Newly proposed changes to Orange County’s election precincts could have a dramatic effect on the way UNC students vote in the 2020 primaries and general election.
Rachel Raper, director of elections in Orange County, and her office have proposed, among other changes, making all of UNC’s on-campus residents part of one election precinct. Currently, the campus is split among four different precincts that all vote at different locations on Election Day. Raper said her vision is to use Kenan Memorial Stadium as the place all students will go on Election Day to cast their ballots.
She said the chief objective is to reduce confusion and frustration that was prevalent among on-campus UNC students about where they had to vote.
“The UNC students see themselves as one community, and really as one neighborhood,” Raper said. “We want to keep our neighborhoods contiguous when possible, so I view the campus as a neighborhood and a community, and there’s a spirit there. So that’s why I believe that they should be voting in one precinct at one polling place.”
The proposal was made in response to a law the General Assembly passed in May that gives county boards of election the ability to examine their voter precincts and propose changes. These proposals must be submitted by Oct. 1, and if approved by the executive director of the N.C. Board of Elections and the legislative services officer, would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
Raper said she's wanted to implement these changes for some time now.
“We already had a narrative in mind, just based on anecdotal evidence of what we’ve heard on Election Day – those common complaints,” Raper said. “So we already had that narrative in mind, especially when we were discussing the UNC precincts."
Outside of UNC, Raper said the county needed to adjust to rapid growth and development. In a perfect world, she said she wants precincts "that would best serve (the) voters while also being responsible with public resources and taxpayer dollars."
These other proposed changes include combining the Booker Creek and Cedar Falls precincts, the East Franklin and Battle Park precincts, and the Lincoln and Westwood precincts to condense six precincts into three. Then, the proposal calls for three new precincts to be established in the Rogers Road and Eubanks area, east Hillsborough and the City of Mebane.
In advance of their vote on the proposal, the Orange County Board of Elections held a public forum on Aug. 29. Raper and the GIS specialist who assisted her on the project, Carlton McKee, Jr., explained the proposal and then took comments from members of the public.
A number of UNC students representing campus organizations spoke in support of the proposal to make UNC one voting precinct. Among them were Alana Edwards, president of UNC Young Democrats; Nick Battaile, civic engagement co-chair for UNC Student Government and Thomas Ellis, the secretary of Young Democrats.
“I think that everyone’s spoken a lot about the student turnout aspect, which I think is crucial," Edwards said following the public forum. "The more students we can have – obviously early voting is the goal – but on Election Day, I’ve seen there’s so much confusion around getting people to their polling location, and that can be really discouraging for a lot of students.”
She said there is also another important effect the proposal could have for politically-minded students.
“I think having a defined UNC ‘super precinct,' essentially, would have a lot of opportunities for people to just engage with their county parties and have representation of campus at the precinct level that they haven’t before,” Edwards said.
However, residents from rural parts of the county rose concerns about enacting changes in the same year as an election.
Kenneth Woods, a resident of Mebane and the chairperson of Cheeks precinct, said he thought these changes would cause confusion for rural voters.
“My job is to get people to the polls to vote. This is going to make my job 100% more difficult,” Woods said during the public comment session of the forum.
Woods questioned the timing of the legislature asking county boards of election to change precincts, saying he thinks changes may cause people in his area not to vote. He asked that the changes be postponed until 2021.
“We can’t afford to lose votes, and that’s what’s gonna happen,” he said.
In an interview the following day, Raper said she has heard similar feedback, but the law does not allow precinct change proposals to be made the following year. She also said she disagreed that there would inherently be confusion by changing precincts in an election year.
“People are not paying attention in 2021 to the news, when you hear about elections, it just kind of goes to the back of their head,” she said. “But when they are paying attention is during presidential cycles."
Raper said for this reason, she thought this was the best time to make these changes. She also said she has not heard negative feedback about the proposed change to UNC’s precincts.
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