Coming Soon: Buncombe County Follies

[Story updated in 2021, to correct statement on ND law and to include Frost’s felony conviction.]]

(Raleigh, NC)—DEC 14, 2012— North Carolina lawmakers should give careful consideration to the State Board of Election’s quiet 5-0 decision last Thursday, in Raleigh, on the Buncombe County Commissioners’ election and how the decision could dramatically impact any particularly close local races in some of our state’s college towns.

The Buncombe County folly involved 175 Warren Wilson College students who were all registered to vote from their campus mailing facility (701 Warren Wilson Road in Asheville) instead of from their actual domiciles. Some even lived off campus, but still used their school mail box address for snail mail and for their voter registration.

This is also the case at Duke, NC Central, Wake Forest and NC School of the Arts, and it forces election officials into working hard to find the students’ physical address. Or they could just look the other way, allowing students to vote from their mailroom address. Sadly, until they were busted, the Buncombe County BoE staff had used the lazier option.

The problem was with a precinct line that had dissected the Warren Wilson campus for “a long time,” according to testimony at the hearing. Some dormitories (and the campus mailroom) are in County Commissioner District 1 but several other dormitories are in District 2.

On Oct. 30, a couple asked a BoE employee why, even though they lived together in an off-campus house, they were assigned to two different districts. The guy had registered from his District 1 college address and the girl from their home address in District 2. The law requires election officials to “make every effort” to correct the situation before the canvass, so their BoE staff volunteered to fix it for all student voters… halfway through the Early Voting period.

To do this, they collaborated with the Warren Wilson staff to learn where each student actually “laid his (her) head at night,” even though they had each signed sworn statements on their Authorizations to Vote testifying that they “lived” at the (mail room) address, “listed above.” In short, those bright young Warren Wilson college students were given a do-over… only this time, they had to give the correct address. For some, it was still too tough a task and they muffed it again.

But in the end, a comfortable lead by the Republican candidate, Christina Merrill, had been reversed for an 18-vote defeat. Merrill protested the decision, which had also flipped control of the Board from Republican back to Democrat.

Frost “won” the seat thanks to some help from election officials. She was later convicted of a felony, conspiracy to commit fraud.

The State Board of Elections, Thursday, affirmed the Buncombe action as not being “irregular” (which is a significant word in NC election law), giving Ellen Frost the seat and this is where things get ugly.

Unless the courts overturn that decision, any candidate who lost a close race near a college may file suit to make their county apply the Buncombe policy to their own contest. See? Changing the rules during the election is never a good idea.

Using Durham County for example, Duke has 723 students registered to vote at two addresses: East Campus lists 390 voters, while West Campus lists 333. Not to be outdone, North Carolina Central University lists 430 students all registered at the same address: 1801 Fayetteville Street, which appears to be in Ward One, but nobody lives there.

So, if any of the students live off-campus, or if any dormitories are in one of the wards that converge just south of campus, then we may see a lawsuit.  In fact, all three losing candidates for their ward races might consider legal action. A few dorms found in Ward Two might prompt the loser to demand any of their ballots be re-cast in Ward 2 instead of Ward 1; which is where the students’ mail boxes are located, even though nobody actually lays their head there. Are you still following all of this?

An unpopular but prudent solution would either have been to make the students vote by absentee ballot from their permanent home address or for the Buncombe County BoE to count the students’ ballots as “partials,” only applying their votes for the bigger races but not the district ones. Some would scoff at that idea, but let’s not forget that many NC college students don’t even qualify for in-state tuition rates. Most plan to leave after school but can still vote in local races.

Taking a narrower view, the State BoE ignored the unintended consequence for every other NC county that hosts a college or university, so we can only hope the courts see the bigger picture.

A few related issues the courts might consider involve the entire student-voting franchise: First, should college students who leave town after school really have standing in local races? Second, are the students being overly influenced by any college professors who could shape their values with a bully pulpit and the power of a grade book?

North Dakota handled this issue by warning students that voting locally “could impact their residential status.” Heck YES! If they vote locally, why shouldn’t they pay local property and income taxes. And since they big enough to vote locally, instead of from their parents’ address, them maybe they should no longer be listed as dependents on anybody’s taxes.

This provision forced students to live with the consequences of their votes for higher local taxes by making them pay their fair share.

For the record, Voter Integrity Project of NC opposes anybody using a mailing address in voting. In fact, we want all registered voters to give the same address they would give to the pizza guy or even the Fire Department. This is called the “where you lay your head” rule, and it can prevent a certain type of vote fraud where people live and vote in another state, but also vote in North Carolina by registering using an in-state mailing address.

The two big problems with applying the “where you lay your head” policy in the Buncombe race are 1) it’s never a good idea to change the rules halfway through the Early Voting period and 2) an even-handed application to all elections just concluded in the state’s college towns could lead to chaos for local races as lawsuits spring up like kudzu.

The State Board of Elections goofed on this one, so let’s hope the courts correct their mistake, reverse their erroneous guidance to the Buncombe County BoE and ask the General Assembly to create a uniform policy that will protect highly impressionable young college students from being manipulated pawns in a game called “local politics.”


Jay DeLancy is Executive Director for Voter Integrity Project of North Carolina, a non-partisan organization that researches and advises on election law reform to ensure that all elections are conducted in a free and fair manner and that no voters are disenfranchised. The group’s achievements have been covered on FOX News Channel’s “Fox and Friends” show and on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show as well as the New York Times and other national and international publications.