The Whittier polling place had a small parking lot — it could hold only about 20 cars — and everyone parking there had to cross railroad tracks to reach the building. Only one or two cars could park directly in front of the building to accommodate people with disabilities.
It was one of the smallest, if not the smallest, polling places in Swain County, but with 3,293 registered voters, it also served the highest population.
That had long been the situation, but a November 2013 accident at a Charlotte polling place brought the North Carolina Board of Elections’ attention to improving polling place safety statewide. The Charlotte incident resulted in two people being run over by a car and hospitalized, and the push for accessible polling places trickled down to Swain.
“There was an emphasis from the state board of elections on safety,” said John Herrin, chairman of the Swain County Board of Elections. “That just added to our concerns about where we were with that particular site, and at that point we investigated the ability for us to move it.”
Being good neighbors
The winning location? Birdtown Community Center, a 10-year-old building with 150 parking spaces and full accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act. For the first time, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will get to cast an Election Day ballot without leaving the reservation.
“For us to have a voting precinct on the reservation, of course I felt it was a great opportunity for our enrolled members to become more involved in the county elections, more so than they probably had in the past,” said Larry Blythe, vice chief of the Eastern Band.
To get to Whittier, voters coming from the furthest reaches of the reservation had to travel as many as 15 or 20 miles of windy mountain road to cast their ballot at a polling place right on the Jackson County line.
“Our reservation is not that large, but you know how it is,” Blythe said. “A country mile is a country mile.”
The new location will be closer to the geographic and demographic center of the precinct. Within its boundaries, 2,415 voters have a Cherokee zip, while only 849 registered voters have a Whittier one. The Birdtown site will be closer to the larger population center of Cherokee voters.
“The Whittier polling site really put a hardship toward anyone that wanted to come from the Cherokee area,” Herrin said. “I don’t know whether that was really ever intended. It was just the way it was for years and years. The board stepped out and decided to change that.”
Blythe is hoping that the change of venue will help Cherokee people get more involved in local elections, in which the Cherokee turnout tends to lag behind that of the non-Cherokee. Presidential elections tend to show a stronger turnout.
“Things that the counties do from election standpoints impact our people,” he said.
The lease agreement for the Birdtown center lasts through 2020, and the tribe won’t charge the county for its use. In fact, the Eastern Band will provide law enforcement on Election Day to manage traffic at the site.
“It’s just an opportunity to coordinate the tribe and the county, and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about,” Blythe said. “Being good neighbors.”
Planning for the future
Not that they didn’t look for options closer to the original polling place. Board members checked out churches and government buildings throughout the precinct but had no luck finding one with the space and handicap-accessible infrastructure needed. Especially because Whittier is complicated by a county line that runs right through it.
“Even though there are structures that might accommodate a voting precinct, we are required by law to hold it inside the county, inside the precinct that it belongs to,” Herrin said.
Nevertheless, the elections office has heard some less-than-positive comments from voters in the Whittier area.
“The people in Whittier didn’t want to lose their polling place,” said Swain County Elections Director Joan Weeks.
“A lot of people probably don’t like change, and they don’t understand the standards that we have to try to follow in conducting elections,” Herrin added. “We take it very seriously.”
Boards of elections must take care to locate polling places so that not only are they accessible to everyone, but they are also located and run so that they don’t disenfranchise anyone, regardless of address, political party, ethnicity or any other characteristic. The move to Birdtown helps Swain County better meet that mandate, Herrin said.
Of course, no matter which way you slice it, Whittier and Cherokee are two distinct communities, several miles apart. Down the road, Herrin would like to see Swain County add another precinct so that both communities could have a polling place.
“We even threw around the idea that someday we might divide the precincts since it is the largest, but that’s talk, unofficial, just discussion,” Herrin said. “This topic has been brought up. It’s been discussed unofficially. We’ve never reviewed it for official action, but it is something that’s out there. We don’t want to disenfranchise everyone.”
Swain County has five voting precincts for its 10,500 registered voters, an average of 2,100 voters per precinct. Meanwhile, Jackson County, which also includes part of the Cherokee reservation, has 14 precincts for its 26,400 registered voters, an average of 1,886 voters per precinct. Jackson has had as many as 18 precincts, but some polling places had to close due to ADA compliance and budget concerns.
Running a polling place isn’t the most expensive proposition in the world, but it does cost some money.
“It’s baseline $2,000 and just depending on the election and everything that’s associated with the election, it could go up to $10,000, but probably more around $6,000,” said Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, elections director for Jackson County.
Herrin said he hasn’t pinned down any hard numbers but puts the likely cost to operate a sixth polling place somewhere in the $2,500 to $3,000 range.
With early voting and absentee options, though — there are more early voting stations than there are precincts — Herrin said Swain voters have plenty of opportunity to cast their ballot.
“You can’t satisfy everybody, but then again our state has the ability for one-stop and for absentee voting both,” he said. “We’ve got more than enough venues to allow people that chance.”