By Wesley Brown
Sunday, February 24, 2013
With studies suggesting polling locations can influence the outcome of an election, some City Council members suspect that the push for an early-voting site on East Carolina University’s campus is part of a larger effort to “politicize” the Greenville municipal ballot in November.
In the past, local officials seldom paused to ponder polling places, but recently the decision on whether to add a one-stop voting site in Greenville has initiated some debate by council members.
Some representatives argue such an expansion would help the city reach its goal of becoming more inclusive; others believe it is a tactic by those possibly seeking re-election to tip the scales in their favor.
Already delayed a week for more empirical data on voter trends, population density and special accommodations required of polling sites, the council will resume debate Monday on whether a location at ECU would be an egalitarian approach to increasing voter turnout.
“We are trying to engage the folks who attend school here in the election process,” said District 5 Councilman Max Joyner, who made the motion for the city to pay for an early voting site on the ECU campus. “I cannot believe that anybody would want to exclude anyone who lives in Greenville from voting.”
Joyner said the reasoning for his request gets back to the city’s main goal of being inclusive.
A polling station at ECU would add a city-funded early-voting site in the 2013 municipal election.
Under its contract with the Pitt County Board of Elections, the city has agreed to pay for a centrally located one-stop voting site on West Fifth Street in each of the last two municipal elections.
At a budgeted cost of about $2,900, the station is housed in the Pitt Area Transit System conference room and runs for a week alongside the county-approved sites at the agricultural center and community schools building.
“We are trying to get the people who live in the city of Greenville involved and one way to do that is through putting the polling places near where they live, work and shop,” Joyner said.
At-large Councilman Dennis Mitchell seconded the motion as a way to increase voter turnout, which in the past municipal election Joyner found to be “pathetic.”
In the presidential election in 2012, turnout at ECU’s Willis Building was 17.5 percent, a precinct total that nearly matched the 18 percent of registered voters who cast a ballot in all of the 2011 municipal election.
Joyner and Mitchell said they want to keep the momentum going, but the theory that polling locations within a short distance from classroom doors and student centers can generate more interest in local government is seen by some as flawed.
In the 2011 municipal election, 114 people, or 5 percent of registered voters in Pitt County, cast their ballots at the Willis Building — a 30 percent decrease from the 2012 presidential election.
It is statistics such as that which lead District 3 Councilwoman Marion Blackburn to suspect “other motives are being served to politicize the election” with this request.
The house-buyer’s maxim also applies to polling places.
That’s the thought of Blackburn, who has indicated that where people vote is important to ensuring an “egalitarian” election.
Scholarly studies suggest that not only does the physical location of the polls affect how many people vote, it also may influence last-minute decisions regarding which box to mark.
An analysis of the 2000 presidential election published in the journal of Political Geography found that “for each 1-mile increase in proximity to the polling place, turnout jumped by nearly half a percentage point.”
Further, a 2008 paper published by three researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Business showed more than half of the people who voted at schools supported issues and candidates who supported education-related measures.
Blackburn called the recommendation to quickly approve an early-voting site in her district on ECU’s campus “unprecedented” and “disingenuous.”
“This came completely out of left field and is taking us out of the domain of what a reasonable and responsible duty of a council is,” Blackburn said.
Originally the only city-funded early-voting site listed on last week’s agenda for the council to discuss was the previously approved station at Pitt Area Transit’s conference quarters on West Fifth Street.
The lack of public input, empirical evidence and a recommendation from the director of the Pitt County Board of Elections — the steps relied on in the past to approve one-stop stations — persuaded the council to approve a motion by District 4 Councilman Calvin Mercer to postpone a vote on the matter.
“We say we want to be an inclusive community and I thought even an inclusive council,” Blackburn said. “But this (request) concerns me greatly.”
Blackburn said to truly serve the city, the council should select a site that “genuinely allows everyone to vote,” such as the newly constructed Drew Steele Center on Elm Street.
As the only ECU graduate student on the council, Blackburn said she has been active in various campus activities and that the Drew Steele Center will increase voter turnout across all segments of the community — students, senior citizens and the handicapped population. The recreational facility satisfies the American with Disabilities Act, has ample parking, is highly visible in the community and has city bus access.
Mercer said that while he supported an increase in voting sites — including ones which are city-funded — he declined to speak for or against any particular polling place. Instead, the councilman said the selection process is not something political entities should control.
“We have elected officials who could be on the ballot in November making important decisions — like where polling places should be — that could very well determine the outcome of the election,” Mercer said. “This is a decision for the Board of Elections and I think that for this council to engage in site selection is politicizing a process in a way that is the very kind of thing that fosters mistrust in government on the part of our citizens.
“Elected officials should not be putting their thumbs on the scales in this kind of way,” Mercer said.
Mercer said he wants the council to go about site selection in a “rational process.” Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas reminded the board that a site at ECU, or anywhere in the city, could take in voters countywide. City attorney Dave Holec said before any location is approved it must be pre-cleared by the state and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Mitchell said he thought the council would be all in on the site, challenging those against the recommendation, some which were for the location during national elections, to make their case Monday.
“Take a week,” Mitchell said. “I want to see the Democratic Party and any community organizers we work with closely to come stand in front of us and say they do not want this location on campus and for what reason.
“The only reason they do not want to is because it is political,” Mitchell said. “We should encourage everybody to vote.”
Contact Wesley Brown at 252-329-9579 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @CityWatchdog.