Voting from bed: WCU, Jackson County election officials hammer out a hopeful home
Walking out of the Jackson County Board of Elections offices in Sylva, Lane Perry seemed pleased. A year’s worth of work was about to pay off.
“At the end of the day, we want to be able to get university students to vote where they live for three to five years,” Perry explained on the way to his car.
For the past year, Perry, director of Western Carolina University’s Center for Service Learning, has worked with local election officials in an effort to find the best way for on-campus students to register to vote using a campus address.
“I know it’s a maze sometimes,” Jackson County Board of Elections Secretary Kirk Stephens told Perry during an early March election board meeting.
“An amazing maze,” Perry agreed.
The pair exchanged reserved smiles as they pinned hopes for a smooth election cycle on the use of campus 911 addresses. They are crossing their fingers that the election board’s official recommendation can insulate WCU students from any voting-related hiccups.
“Everyone wants to make sure that student voters don’t have problems with their student addresses,” Stephens later explained. “We’re just trying to err on the side of caution to make sure that students are able to vote without any kind of hassle.”
The ‘least challengeable address’
A host of new voting laws will take effect in North Carolina in 2016. Critics claim some of the new legislation will have negative impacts on certain populations, such as minorities, the elderly and students.
The laws require voters to present certain forms of photo identification, do away with several early voting days and disallow same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, among other measures. The new laws face multiple legal challenges, including one from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Those new laws are not what have demanded so much attention from WCU and Jackson County elections officials. The North Carolina legislation requiring a voter to register “where you lay your head to sleep” is not exactly new.
“That’s probably been in place since the beginning of time, since voting began,” explained Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections.
Previously, students at WCU have registered to vote using the address of 245 Memorial Drive in Cullowhee, the address of A.K. Hinds University Center on campus. But that’s no good anymore.
“That’s out,” Perry said. “That would not meet the requirements.”
Stephens describes the 245 address as “nebulous.” There are concerns that using the collective address on voter registration forms could result in challenges.
“245 is like an avatar address for Western Carolina University students,” said Lovedahl-Lehman.
Since no one actually resides in a mailroom, or a post office box, such addresses don’t work for voting registration. Local officials have decided that students should use 911 addresses, or addresses by which law enforcement would identify a locale. It’s what Stephens has labeled “something we can live with” or the “least challengeable address.”
“Do you think you can sell the university on using the 911 address?” he asked Perry during the election board meeting.
“I think we’ve got something I can take back to the university,” Perry told him.
A few days later, Perry’s boss, WCU Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Samuel Miller, sounded pleased enough.
“I’m glad we were able to find a way to let students have an option,” Miller said. “They’ll have a choice, that’s the main thing.”
The elections board worked with WCU to hammer out the “least challengeable address” with an eye towards Warren Wilson College near Asheville. Students at the Buncombe County school found themselves stumbling through the 2012 election after the campus was split into separate voting districts and the address traditionally listed by students — 701 Warren Wilson Road — was called into question.
“It made the certification of voting results in 2012 drag out for weeks,” Lovedahl-Lehman recalled. “It got complicated.”
That’s why WCU has been working with the Jackson County Elections Board to avoid any potential election issues due to a student’s listed address.
“To WCU folks’ credit, they want to get ahead of any situation like that at Western,” said Cindy Thompson, chair of the Jackson County Elections Board. “They’re trying to prepare for the future, if there was a question.”
By assigning students on campus 911 addresses with which to register, the university will attempt to avoid any challenges to voters’ physical addresses.
“What we want to do, if a student is registered to vote and they go and they vote, they will not receive a challenge,” Perry explained.
At the risk of bothering Grandma Jones
Local election and university officials have been working towards a solution to a hypothetical problem. A WCU student’s campus address has yet to be challenged. Challenges, in general, are rare.
“In the 20 years I have worked in the board of elections, we have only had one challenge to a voter’s address,” Lovedahl-Lehman said.
A challenge may either be generated by the election board or by a citizen questioning the legitimacy of a voter. The election board is not currently challenging WCU students and their 245 address.
“That’s not actually being challenged by the board.” Lovedahl-Lehman said. “But there are more and more groups out there looking at voter rolls. There have been groups that have actually asked about 245.”
One such person looking at voter rolls in Jackson County, specifically at the 245 Memorial Drive address, is Ginny Jahrmarkt. She’s a coordinator with the Tea Party Patriots of Jackson County but is scanning the local voter rolls on behalf of the Raleigh-based Voter Integrity Project.
“We just want to make sure we’re having free and fair and accurate voting across the state,” Jahrmarkt said.
Jahrmarkt understands that some people have long used off-homesite addresses.
“I get it, I’ve been here a long time, I get it, we don’t want to upset Grandma Jones, because, hey, we know she’s legit, she’s been going to the polls forever, we don’t want to bother Grandma Jones,” said Jahrmarkt.
But she also suspects some voters registered with a collective WCU address are improperly registered and perhaps no longer live in the district. She feels that ensuring voters register with their physical address will better square the voting rolls.
“It just validates that they are a legitimate voter,” she said. “You don’t lay your head inside a P.O. box.”
Recently, the Voter Integrity Project challenged 182 voters in Buncombe County. The challenges were based on letters returned as undeliverable, as well as the findings of a door-to-door voter verification march conducted by the Asheville Tea Party. The local elections board has scheduled a hearing date of March 27 for the challenges.
Stumbling block or paving stone
Jahrmarkt doesn’t believe that requiring students to list their actual physical addresses — their 911 address — on their voter registration will hinder participation in the democratic process.
“I don’t think it’s a hurdle,” she said. “I just think it’s a responsibility. They are adults, they’re completely capable of taking that five to 10 minutes.”
In addition to updating any existing voter registrations, students will also need to learn their 911 addresses. The addresses are not commonly used.
“That’s something that the students will not know,” Perry said. “They will have to be given that information.”
Miller said that while it may be “a little confusing” because the 911 address differs from how students registered previously, it shouldn’t be too difficult to implement a change because student populations tend to have steady turnover.
“I believe you have to take the stance that it’s a new process every time,” he said.
The vice chancellor said the education of student voters will fall largely upon other students participating in voter registration efforts. Registration efforts are typically carried out by on-campus Republican and Democratic organizations as well as non-partisan groups.
“It’s usually a coalition of students registering other students,” said Miller. “They’re the ones that are most energized about it.”
Thomas Dees, chairman of the WCU College Republicans, isn’t worried about the need for students on campus to list a different address than they are accustomed.
“I believe they should vote where they rest their head,” Dees said, weighing in from Washington D.C. after a long day at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC.
Andy Miller, formerly a leader with WCU College Democrats and currently a legislative assistant for Democratic North Carolina Rep. Joe Sam Queen, has experience registering college voters. He feels changes in registration requirements will lead to confusion in the process.
“The more confusion that is put into registering to vote, the harder it will be to get students or anyone else to register,” said Miller.
Former chairman of the WCU College Republicans Derrick Clayton — he left the group to form a local chapter of the Young America’s Foundation — allows that requiring students to list an address they are likely unfamiliar with might be “a potential hurdle” that “may hurt college students’ chances to vote.”
He also cast some of the provisions within the state’s new voting law as possible hurdles for students. Though not convinced lawmakers are potentially monkeywrenching the student vote, Clayton said he is concerned that certain election legislation “does hurt college students.”
“I don’t know if they were necessarily targeting liberals on campus to make it harder to vote, but I think it might have that effect,” Clayton said. “I don’t think it’s something that Republicans and conservatives are going to be in too big of a hurry to address, but I think they ought to.”
Roger Turner, voter outreach coordinator for the Jackson County Democrats, has been working with college students in voter registration efforts. He’s glad to see local officials recommend using the 911-adresses.
“I am grateful for the good efforts of WCU and the Jackson County Board of Elections in defining a ‘legal’ residential address for campus-based students that will hold up to any challenges at the polling station,” Turner noted.
When WCU students living on campus register to vote this year they will have a choice to make. They can register in their hometown and vote via an absentee ballot, or they can list their 911-address on the Cullowhee campus.
“We just need to educate the students, if you want to vote these are your options,” said Stephens. “If you want to vote in Cullowhee, that’s great, but here’s the hoops you have to jump through.”
Students living at Scott Hall, for instance, will now need to list their physical address as 159 West University Way.
“I like to refer to it as the fancy way of saying Scott Hall,” Perry said.
But Thompson points out that the 911-addresses are not a cure-all. While it is the intent of the elections board that listing them will circumvent any challenges to on-campus student voters, there are no guarantees.
“It is obviously not going to keep people from challenging a student voter, but it is our recommendation,” Thompson said. “There’s never going to be anything a board of election can do to guarantee any voter that they won’t be challenged.”
The 911-addresses are a possible solution for possible problems, one that WCU administration and local election officials appear satisfied with.
“It seems like we’ve kind of found something we can live with,” Stephens told Perry during their early March discussion.
For now, anyway. Elections officials and student populations have 2016 to look forward to, when students’ addresses listed on voter registration forms must match the address listed on their photo I.D.
“I think we would be remiss if we didn’t discuss 2016,” Stephens said to Perry. “That’s where I think the real problem is going to be, because most students don’t get their driver’s licenses changed.”
“One side of me hopes this gets figured out by deciding this is unconstitutional” Perry replied. “But that’s a little bit of a dream.”