Within hours of Gov. Pat McCrory signing a Republican-backed bill this week making sweeping changes to the state's voting laws, local elections boards in two college towns made moves that could make it harder for students to vote.
The Watauga County Board of Elections voted Monday to eliminate an early voting site and election-day polling precinct on the campus of Appalachian State University.
The Pasquotank County Board of Elections on Tuesday barred an Elizabeth City State University senior from running for city council, ruling his on-campus address couldn't be used to establish local residency. Following the decision, the head of the county's Republican Party said he plans to challenge the voter registrations of more students at the historically black university ahead of upcoming elections.
Voting rights advocates worry the decisions could signal a statewide effort by GOP-controlled elections boards to discourage turnout among young voters considered more likely to support Democrats.
The law McCrory signed Monday requires voters to have specific forms of government-issued photo identification to cast a ballot, a measure he and other Republicans said is needed to prevent voter fraud. But the law also contains more than 40 other provisions, including ending same-day voter registration, trimming the period for early voting from 17 days to 10 and eliminating a program that encourages high school students to register to vote in advance of their 18th birthdays.
Democratic lawmakers repeatedly tried to amend the bill to allow student IDs from state-supported universities and community colleges to be used at the polls, but that was blocked by the Republican majority.
In a radio appearance this week, McCrory suggested the changes are about fairness and suggested Democrats had in the past manipulated polling locations and early voting hours for partisan gain. When he was sworn in as governor in January, McCrory won the power to appoint a Republican majority to the N.C. Board of Elections, which in turn appoints the county boards.
"With this new law, we have every political precinct open a week before election, which has equal access, and the exact number of hours of open precincts will be available now as they were in the last presidential election," McCrory said during an interview on WUNC.
In a contentious meeting Monday, the new GOP majority on the Watauga elections board voted over the objection of the board's lone Democrat to eliminate early voting at the Appalachian State student union.
The Watauga board also voted 2-1 Monday to combine the three Boone voting precincts into one, eliminating an election day polling site on campus. More than 9,300 Boone residents will now be slated to cast ballots at a county building that only has about 35 parking spots.
"Why are they making it harder for students to vote?" said Sen. Josh Stein (D-Wake), who has been a vocal opponent of the new law. "Because young people tend to vote more Democratic than Republican. I think that's disgraceful."
In the Pasquotank case, county GOP chairman Pete Gilbert challenged the residency of Montravias King, an Elizabeth City State senior who has been registered to vote in the county since coming to the college in 2009. King says he plans to stay after he graduates in May. King, who lives in an on-campus residence hall, filed to run for a seat on the city council representing the ward that includes the campus.
Gilbert cited the wording of state law requiring voters to be registered at their "permanent" domicile. He argued a dorm room occupied for only part of the year is a temporary residence. The GOP controlled elections board agreed, voting 2-1 to bar King from the ballot.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Gilbert said he plans to challenge the residency of more students using campus addresses to register to vote. He said he would urge his counterparts living in college towns across the state to do the same.
"I plan to take this show on the road," Gilbert said.
Clare Barnett, a lawyer at the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, represented King in Tuesday's hearing. She said she will appeal the decision to the N.C. Board of Elections. She pointed to a 1979 ruling by the N.C. Supreme Court that cleared the way for students to register in the towns were they attend college, even if they intend to move on after graduation.
"The trend now is to attack the right of college students to vote," she said. "Under the equal protection principles of the Constitution, you can't treat college students differently than other voters, and there isn't this presumption that other voters have to prove they intend to stay in the community permanently, forever and ever."