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Smith Recreation Center as Early Voting Site for Primary: Fear and Anger

29 December 2019

My wife and I recently watched a movie titled The American President. Michael Douglas plays the role of President Andrew Shepherd. In a press briefing near the end of the movie, Douglas makes this statement regarding his reelection opponent, Senator Bob Rumson (played by Richard Dreyfuss): “Whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who to blame.” This statement is from a movie, but it is true in real life today. However, to fear, I would add anger.

The happenings in our time that demonstrate the truth of this approach are numerous. One is the push to make Smith Recreation Center an early voting site during the 2020 primary. The Cumberland County Board of Elections was unable to, as required by law, unanimously approve this proposal. All three Democratic members (Floyd W. Johnson Jr., Irene Grimes, Helen Nelson) voted in favor, while the two Republicans voted in opposition. Lacking a unanimous vote for approval, the matter must go before the State Board of Elections for a decision. That board has a majority Democratic membership and only a majority vote is required to approve the Smith Recreation Center proposal.

In this case, the argument made by proponents of Smith Recreation as a site is that the surrounding area is home to many elderly citizens, convenient for voting by students at Fayetteville State University, and would encourage voting by university students. This argument summary is based on comments made by citizens who spoke at a meeting of the County Board of Elections on 12 November 2019.

Now consider the response of many Smith proponents when making it an early voting site for a primary was rejected by the two Republican members of the Board: Linda Devore and Bobby Swilley. There was an immediate rush to generate fear and anger while blaming Republicans for supposed unfair treatment of black citizens.

An example of this fear, anger, and blaming approach shows through in a statement attributed to Val Applewhite. It appears in an article titled, “Vote site fight: Should early voting be held next door to Fayetteville State University?” by Paul Woolverton. He writes: “Val Applewhite, a prominent local Democrat and former Fayetteville City Council member, said on Facebook that she thinks Republicans voted against the Smith Recreation site in an effort to prevent Democrats from voting.”

Then the following comments were made by Floyd W. Johnson Jr., Chairman of the County Board of Elections, during an exchange with Linda Devore when discussing consistency in voting procedures as recorded in the 12 November 2019 Board meeting minutes:

Polling sites primarily in African-American communities have been closed to save money, or the turnout is too low, so they combine polling sites. To me, that is a form of voter suppression. I believe it is a template to suppress the African-American voters. That is fact.

Simply screaming “voter suppression” and blaming Republicans is typical employment of fear, anger, and blaming in pursuit of political advantage and power. The unfair and destructive results of this tactic are compounded by the routinely accompanying misinformation and refusal to honestly consider the facts that support the position being questioned.

In the Smith Recreation situation, some speakers in the 12 November meeting were clearly under the impression that Smith had been an early voting site for primaries in past presidential elections. Smith has never been an early site for a presidential primary. The only time it was an early site for a primary was in 2014. That was due to 2013 legislation that reduced the early voting period from 17 to 10 days. Terri Robertson, Director of the Cumberland County Board of Elections, explains that Smith was added that year due to the reduced days and expected resulting need for relief at the North Regional Library site. The 2013 legislation was repealed, and the early voting timeframe returned to 17 days. That negated the need for Smith as a primary early voting site. What happened here points to sound reasoning and not to voter suppression.

Another bit of misinformation raised by some speakers was that Cross Creek 13, the precinct for which Smith Recreation Center is the polling place, was being closed. The minutes reflect the following:

Secretary Devore was recognized to make a comment of clarification. Because several public commenters mentioned this, there is no proposal or discussion before this board to close CC13. It has never been a consideration. There are 77 precincts in this county, and they will all be open on election days.

My observation is that most of the fear and anger production, along with blaming, is done on social media, especially Facebook. Not surprisingly, I have seen nothing on Facebook, from proponents of Smith as a primary early voting site, correcting these two points of misinformation.

In 2014, when Smith was an early primary site, 362 votes were cast early. As of 12 December 2019, 51 of those voters were no longer registered, leaving 311. Voters in the 311 came from 54 different precincts. Only ten of the 54 had six or more votes cast; most of the others had one or two. The distance from Smith to the nearest primary early voting site, Board of Elections at 227 Fountainhead Lane, is 2.5 miles. Of the ten precincts from which most early voters came to Smith in 2014, following are the polling places that are less than 2.5 miles from Smith, along with the number of voters and distance: Cross Creek 5, 18/1.1; CC16, 88/.9; CC17, 19/1.9. Smith is Cross Creek 13 and had 24 early voters in 2014. This says 149 votes came from the Murchison Road area that appears to be the basis of the call for Smith being a primary early voting site. For good measure, add another 25 to allow for any low turnout precincts in the area that I did not include here. At the $20,000 minimum estimated cost to operate an early voting site, that is $115 per voter.

One can make the argument that 2014 was not a presidential election year as 2020 will be. That is a fair point. Look at the 2016 primary. In an article titled, “Last day of early voting brings lines and skateboarding voters”, Paul Woolverton writes that Terri Robertson said preliminary figures indicated 18,539 votes were cast in early voting for the 15 March primary. That was 31% of the 60,098 total votes cast in that primary. The four precincts that I contend make up the focus area for pursuit of early voting at Smith cast a total of 2,516 votes in that primary. Assuming 31% is a good early vote approximation across the board, 780 votes would be cast from those four precincts.

Jeff Womble, Associate Vice-Chancellor of Communications at Fayetteville State University, states that approximately 1400 students live on campus at the university. A table at www.census.gov labelled “Table 2. Reported Voting and Registration, by Race, Hispanic Origin, Sex, and Age: November 2018” indicates that 45.7% of black college students 18-24 years old register to vote and do so at a 31% rate. Applying this math to the 1400 students indicates 434 students might vote. Applying the 31% early vote percentage yields 135.

Altogether, approximately 915 early votes might be expected from the four focus area precincts. At $20,000, that is $21.86 per voter. Assume the six sites used in 2016 each cost the high of $30,000. The total of $180,000 divided by 18,539 is $9.71. That is less than half the average for operating Smith at the low end cost. Granted, only four precincts are used in these computations. That seems reasonable since the stated aim is to address the perceived needs of that specific area.

Distance between early voting sights should also come into play. The average distance between the six sites that are normally used is 12.21 miles, while the shortest is between Cliffdale Recreation Center and the Board of Elections at 6.2 miles. If Smith Recreation is made an early voting site, it will only be 2.5 miles from the Board of Elections, where focus area citizens could vote early. That is less than half the distance between the two closest sites and just 20% of the average.

Regarding convenience, a person may take a 16 minute city bus ride from the Murchison Road side of Fayetteville State to 505 Franklin Street (downtown) and then walk .3 miles to the Board of Elections for early voting. A bus ride directly to the Board of Elections is 32 minutes.

The picture here is one of misinformation that is not widely and forthrightly corrected by those who initially contribute to forming it: accusations of black voter suppression not supported by facts or reason; focusing on a small segment of the population when, in this case, equal treatment of all should be the aim; disregarding the high financial cost of the proposed change; not recognizing the inequity of having one site so much closer to another than is the case with others; by declining use of city buses, calling for greater convenience than seems necessary.

Finally, this singular focus will very possibly conflict with the intent, if not the letter, of recently passed legislation. During the 2016 primary, in these four precincts, a total of 2516 ballots were cast: 205 by Republicans, 2301 by Democrats, and 10 by others. Having Smith Recreation as an early voting site during the primary would clearly favor Democrats and a primarily black population. Senate Bill 683/SL 2019-239, 163-227.6(b) speaks to voting site selection and ends with “…that the use of the sites chosen will not unfairly favor any party, racial or ethnic group, or candidate.”

Given all that is presented here, I do not see a reasonable case for making Smith Recreation a primary early voting site. I am finishing this column on 13 December 2019. It is very possible the NC Board of Elections will render a decision before this column is published. Whether the board’s decision comes before or after publication of this column, examining their decision in light of what is said here will be a worthwhile endeavor. The aim of that endeavor should be to examine the decision based on facts and reason as opposed to emotion and political manipulation (Fear, anger, blaming). Remember the warning given by Michael Douglas in his role as President Andrew Shepherd.

Note: On 20 December, The North Carolina Board of Elections approved making Smith Recreation Center an early voting site for the 2020 primary.

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