People in Cherokee will no longer have to drive or hitch rides into Bryson City to cast ballots during early voting.
The Swain County Board of Elections recently agreed to establish an early voting site in Cherokee, a move that will likely increase voter participation.
A 92-year-old woman from the Big Cove community in Cherokee came to the board of elections and asked it to set up an early voting site on tribal land. Otherwise, Cherokee voters had to travel as many as 40 miles roundtrip to cast their ballots in Bryson City.
“It was placing undue hardship on the voter,” said John Herrin, a member of the Swain Board of Elections.
When it comes to elections for tribal offices like chief, Cherokee runs its own elections. But for state and national elections, Cherokee voters cast ballots under the auspice of either Swain or Jackson counties, depending on which side of the reservation they live on. Jackson already had a polling site set up for Cherokee voters.
“Jackson County residents basically could go a couple miles from their home, while Swain County residents had a 20-mile drive,” Herrin said.
A site for the new polling location has yet to be chosen. The site will only be open during early voting. On Election Day, Cherokee voters will still have to leave the reservation to vote in the Whittier precinct.
Herrin hopes the establishment of an early voting site on the reservation will encourage better voter turnout.
Cherokee voters already showed good turnout in the last election, with 70 percent casting a ballot, according to Board of Elections Director Joan Weeks. But while 25 percent of all registered Swain County voters cast early ballots, only 17 percent of Cherokee did so — a discrepancy likely linked to the distance of the nearest early voting site.
The early voting polling site might also increase participation in local off-year elections, such as county commissioner races, which Cherokee voters previously haven’t turned out for in high numbers.
“Typically, you see a lot of participation from the Reservation on presidential and senatorial elections, and not nearly as much during off years for local county government,” said Herrin. “We might see a lot more, considering they don’t have to be inconvenienced as much as in the past. We can’t just go out there and beat on their doors and beg them, but we can definitely make it as easy as possible to vote,” Herrin said.