Boone, North Carolina
Correction appended Sept. 24
Appalachian State University played host to Rock the Vote’s 2014 National Voter Registration Day rally and concert on Tuesday, with an eclectic mix of students and local politicians gathered amid brisk September winds on Duck Pond field, a grassy valley near the stadium where the Mountaineers football team plays. “We’re here celebrating our constitutional right to vote,” said Andy Ball, mayor of the town of Boone. “We want to encourage everyone to speak out in this election.”
The message was familiar, but North Carolina is in a unique position this time around. The state is ground zero of the ongoing battle to protect voting rights and the students Appalachian State, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Tar Heel state, are the test cases. A sweeping 2013 state voting law that will be in place for the first time during a statewide election, eliminating same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, and shortening the early voting window by ten days, all changes that could disproportionately impact young people.
“We’re worried,” says Rachel Clay, 21, a student at ASU. “But, there’s a big pushback from grassroots organizations on campus to get students engaged and address misinformation.” Clay is helping to organize a march to the polls during the early voting period, and plans to vote on the first day the polls open—Oct. 23. She was one of many students who voted at the campus’ polling site in 2012, which has been moved by the local board of elections from the centrally located student union to a site further away from undergrads on main campus. The GOP-controlled Watauga County Board of Elections also recently rejected a proposal to have the campus serve as an early voting site, though the campus was home to an early voting site every year since 2008.
On Tuesday, students trickled in and out of to rally ahead of the 2014 Midterm election. They were drawn to the event for different reasons—many had come from grabbing a bite to eat at the nearby student center and were drawn to the music. Others were truly concerned about protecting their right to cast a ballot, and wanted to make sure every student at ASU had the opportunity to have their voice be heard.
Republicans in the state have called the voting law a common sense reform that will help prevent fraud at the state’s polls. In 2016, additional rules are scheduled to take effect that would prevent students from presenting their student identification cards as proof of residence when casting a ballot, as is currently permitted. Voter rights advocates worry the laws changes to early voting and same-day registration will place an undue burden on certain voting blocks including African Americans, low-income voters, the elderly, and young people.
Durham-based advocacy group Democracy NC says the law blocked more than 400 voters from casting ballots during the primary because of the changes to same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, disruption they predict will be bigger during the Midterm election. That is, however, unless civil rights organization’s last-ditch attempt at judicial intervention proves fruitful. On Sept. 25, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union will represent a collection of North Carolinians in an expedited appeal hearing before the 4th Circuit Court.
In the meantime, the issue of disenfranchisement has become an election issue in the close federal senate contest. Incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan asked the federal government to investigate the new voting law last year, and has created a list-building website encouraging people to vent their frustration about the new law. Her campaign has criticized the Republican nominee Thom Tillis for working to pass the new voting law as speaker of the state House. Tillis defends his vote for the new law as part of an effort to restore confidence in the voting system.
“The mistake the extremists in state legislature made is that their actions have energized people,” says Rev. William Barber president of the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP and leader of a statewide movement to galvanize voters.
It may take until after the election to find out if this enthusiasm will offset the decline in voter participation because voting will be less convenient this time around. “I’m not a political scientist,” says Anita Earls, the Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, “but I think we’ll see a jump in students voting this year because of their frustration that someone is trying to take their vote.”
Correction: A previous version of this story named the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People among the groups being represented by the Southern Coalition of Social Justice. The NAACP is involved in a separate suit against the state’s voting law.