The Swain County Board of Elections last week purged 110 voters from its rolls who had listed their voting address as the Oconaluftee Job Corps Center, a job training and education center for at-risk youth.
The voters had been students at Job Corps at some point over the past six years but no longer live in Swain County. The move partially quells a five-month-old challenge to the voting status of Job Corps students. While the former students have now been purged from the rolls, the question of whether to let future Job Corps students register to vote in Swain County has not been resolved.
In March, Mike Clampitt, chairman of the Swain County Republican Party, challenged the legality of Job Corps students registering to vote locally. Clampitt claimed they were not technically residents. Shortly after Clampitt filed his challenge, however, the Job Corps Center closed down for campus repairs. All the students were sent away.
Clampitt’s challenge then took a new turn. Many of the voters in question had graduated from Job Corps years ago, but were still on the rolls. But with the campus totally closed down, it was clear that no one lived there anymore.
To make his case, Clampitt sent letters to the students, addressed to the Job Corps address they used when registering to vote. Clampitt spent $350 sending out letters by regular mail and then by certified mail. Clampitt’s goal was collecting “return to sender” slips for all the voters to show they were no longer residents.
Meanwhile, however, the county election office was going through a similar process. Election director Joan Weeks sent two letters by regular mail and a third by certified mail — a process legally required before removing a voter from the rolls.
Weeks said that even though the process is time-consuming, it is meant to protect a legitimate voter from being arbitrarily removed from the rolls. It’s possible one or more of the students had settled down in Swain County after graduating from Job Corps and could show up at the polls at the next election thinking they were still registered.
“We know Job Corps has closed, but by law that’s how we have to do it,” Weeks said.
Weeks said it was unnecessary for Clampitt to send out mailings of his own.
“It doesn’t matter if he did 15 mailings. We have to do them as the Swain County Election Board sending out the mailings through our office,” Weeks said.
Clampitt said he was kept in the dark about the status of his challenge, however. He said he was under the impression that the burden of proof was up to him to prove the students were no longer residents. In preparation for a formal hearing on his challenge, Clampitt even lined up subpoenas of Job Corps staff to testify that the students in question no longer lived there. Clampitt said the steps seemed arduous to him. Clampitt felt like the election board was making his challenge difficult “to see if I would take the time to continue with it.”
“They tried to inconvenience me and made me jump through a lot of hoops,” Clampitt said.
The formal challenge hearing was scheduled for September, but it may be canceled now since the voters in questions have already been removed from the rolls. Clampitt said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the election board’s decision to purge the roll of Job Corps voters before the hearing could be held.
Weeks said the election board couldn’t take action sooner because by law it has to wait for the results of the certified mailings it sent out.
Clampitt said he is glad the old names are now purged from the rolls. Clampitt feared the names were fodder for election fraud. Someone could apply for absentee ballots using the names of Job Corps students. The request for an absentee ballot is a simple process, requiring nothing more than a hand-written letter and signature of the voter. The request can stipulate the ballot be sent to any address in the world.
“Who knows who would fill it out?” Clampitt said.
Voting by Job Corps students has been controversial over the years. In past elections, several groups of Job Corps students would be brought into the board of elections office and registered to vote prior to the election. They were later brought in to cast ballots, sometimes on Election Day but often during early voting. Job Corps staff included leaders in the Democratic Party and a Democratic county commissioner, prompting criticism that staff would persuade the students to vote a certain way.
Critics claimed the mass registration of Job Corps students was part of a coordinated effort by the Democratic Party machine to control elections and retain power. In a small county like Swain a handful of votes can make a difference, making the Job Corps voters an important battleground, Clampitt said. Clampitt anticipates the voter registration of Job Corps students will resume when the center re-opens.
“I think they will continue to push the envelope with the system and register those people to vote en masse,” Clampitt said.
Clampitt plans to track future voting registration drives involving Job Corps students and challenge their status as residents.
“It is going to be a lot of work, but I am just going to have to keep up with what they are doing,” Clampitt said.
It is unclear how a challenge on those grounds would fare.
According to state election law, a person can register to vote in a county after living there 30 days. Students in colleges and universities often register to vote in the town where they are going to school. But state law also says a voter is not considered a resident if they come to a place “for temporary purposes only, without the intention of making that county a permanent place of abode.”
Around 200 students funnel through the Job Corps Center in a year, some staying for a just a few weeks — getting kicked out for misbehaving or leaving on their own — while others stay for months as they complete their GEDs, high school diplomas, or job training courses in everything from nursing home care to masonry. The students are mostly considered “at-risk.” For many, Job Corps is a last chance in life, often court-ordered in lieu of probation or detention. The Job Corps center is located inside the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.