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Wednesday, 07 March 2012 21:48

Swain leaders OK Cherokee early voting site after weeks of uncertainty

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The Swain County Board of Elections has decided to continue running a satelite early voting site in Cherokee, but to the chagrin of some nixed for now the idea of an additional site in the rural Alarka community.

The Swain County commissioners this week approved the election board’s request for $2,600 to run an early voting site in Cherokee for two weeks prior to the May primary election.

However, the election board decided not to pursue an early voting site catering to residents in the remote communities of Alarka and Nantahala.

Swain first ran an early voting location in Cherokee during 2010 but has debated for the past month whether it was worth the cost to do so again this year. Without the extra site, Cherokee residents must drive anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to reach the main early voting site in Bryson City. Jackson County has historically provided an early voting site in Cherokee for residents on the Jackson side of the reservation.

The Cherokee site will also make early voting more convenient for voters in Whittier, which is closer to Cherokee than Bryson City.

“That portion of the county was underserved,” said Mark Tyson, a member of the Board of Elections. “There had been a lot of community response made to the board.”

Residents of Alarka and Nantahala have similarly long treks, but the Board of Elections determined that it did not have enough time to adequately set up a brand new early voting site.

“It would be tougher to do a site in the western part of the county,” Tyson said, “given the short of amount of time that we had and the limited resources.” The election board decided to revisit the idea of a West Swain site next year.

Commissioner David Monteith suggested the election board go ahead and ask for money for both sites, but they felt it was too late to prepare both in time for early voting.

“I challenged them on it and told them they should do so, but they didn’t want to do it,” Monteith said.

Monteith said county residents would have liked to see the additional site in West Swain and that the election board should have dealt with the issue earlier.

“They could have come to us a month ago,” he said. “They just weren’t thinking ahead.”

 

Early voting request, take two

The Board of Elections members had to appear before the commissioners twice in the past week over the issue. The first time, the election board did not come with a clear request but instead presented an open-ended question to commissioners on which sites they wanted to fund.

“So you all have not decided exactly what you want to get? You are speculating?” said Commissioner David Monteith.

Board of Elections Chair James Fisher explained that the election board had avoided making a hard and fast request because they did not want to put the final decision on the backs of the commissioners.

“I felt like it was unfair to y’all,” Fisher said.

Monteith replied that the commissioners would be answerable to the final decision anyway.

“Would it not be better for you guys to make a decision on what you want?” Monteith said. “I would rather know exactly what you want.”

Commissioners told the election board to return once they had nailed down what specifically it wanted the county to fund. The election board came back five days later with its specific request — namely to fund the site in Cherokee but not Alarka.

When the Swain County Board of Elections first offered an early voting site in Cherokee in 2010, the turnout was poor, with only 226 people taking advantage of the new location. “That’s not to say that it won’t be successful this go around,” Fisher said.

Board of election members said the site may just need more time to gain a following but also questioned whether the county can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a previously underused early voting site. The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010.

“We are letting these people down by not getting them where they need to vote,” said resident Barbara Robinson.

The Swain County Board of Elections first approached the Board of Commissioners after realizing that it didn’t have enough money in its budget this year to run more than the single early voting site in Cherokee.

Counties once got a small contribution from the federal government to help fund early votings, but the state legislature for now is refusing to pony up the required state match, which means counties would not get the assistance this year.

“It is thrown on the backs of the counties,” said Phil Carson, chairman of the board of commissioners. “The taxpayers are footing the bill.”

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