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Wednesday, 11 April 2007 00:00

Legality of Job Corps votes questioned

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When Mike Clampitt was making get out the vote calls during his campaign for Swain County commissioner last fall, he noticed an interesting pattern on the voter registration lists.

 

Dozens of people were registered to vote at the same address, namely the Oconaluftee Job Corps Center. Job Corps serves at-risk youths from across the country seeking a second chance in life by earning their GEDs and receiving job training. Clampitt had long heard rumors that the Democratic Party targeted students at Job Corps in voting drives — first registering them to vote then bringing them to the polls. Clampitt, a Republican, decided to wage a challenge over whether the Job Corps students are legitimate residents of Swain County and entitled to vote here.

“It was one of those things you hear a lot of, but until it has been documented it is a hearsay thing,” Clampitt said.

Clampitt ultimately found 123 people on the Swain County voter roster registered to vote at the Job Corps address. They had been registered during the 2006, 2004 and 2002 election cycles. In the last fall election, nearly two-dozen Job Corps students voted, a significant number for a small county where elections can be decided by a relative handful of votes.

How long students stay at Job Corps varies. Some get in trouble and are sent home after a few weeks. Others spend up to six months in the program.

According to state election law, a person can register to vote in a county after living there 30 days to establish residency. But state law also says a voter is not considered a resident if they come to a place “for temporary purposes only, without the intention of making that county a permanent place of abode.”

Clampitt argued that although the students may have been living at Job Corps for the requisite 30 days before they registered, they came for temporary purposeS and didn’t intend to stay.

“They are considered students and housed here temporarily,” Clampitt said. “The 30 day rule is not going to apply if these people come here to go to school and have another home they are going to return to.”

Some Job Corps students don’t have stable home lives, however, and returning to their parents is not necessarily a given. Many might not know where they are going next. If they don’t know where they are going next, Swain County is their home for the moment and they are as much as resident here as anywhere.

Joan Weeks, Swain election director, said the question of whether Job Corps students are entitled to vote in Swain County has been raised in the past.

“What we were told is if they declare that as their residence to let them vote,” Weeks said.

Weeks said the same is true of college students.

“Students at Western Carolina University are allowed to declare that as their residence,” Weeks said.

A preliminary hearing of the residency challenge will be held at 3 p.m., Wednesday, April 18, in the county administration building. Clampitt is asking the names of Job Corps students be removed from the voter registration roster. The issue has taken a new twist with the recent closure of Job Corps. All the students who were there have been sent away. Clampitt said his goal isn’t simply getting this batch of students removed, but to keep Job Corps students from being registered in the future.

Clampitt said Job Corps students were targeted as part of an orchestrated voting drive effort. Students were registered to vote on the same day and the majority were registered Democrat, Clampitt said. The majority of Job Corps students are low-income, African Americans as well — a demographic that is much more likely to be Democrats anyway.

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