Swain County’s Board of Elections will decide this month whether it is worth several thousand dollars to operate an early voting site in Cherokee again this election year.
The three-member election board all agreed the county might not be able to afford an early voting site in Cherokee this year. However, they disagree on whether low turnout at the site during the 2010 election should be a factor in the decision.
“(Money) is really the only factor,” said Mark Tyson, a member of the three-person board and a Democrat. “I am really hoping that we are able to provide the voting site in Cherokee.”
The board of elections currently doesn’t have the money in its budget to cover the cost of an early voting site in Cherokee, but intend to ask county commissioners for an additional appropriation.
Without the additional location, Cherokee residents will again have to drive to the board of elections office in Bryson City if they want to vote early — a more than 20-minute trek. And, for those living in the far reaches of Cherokee’s Big Cove community, the trip is more like 30 to 40 minutes.
“That is a heck of a drive,” Tyson said.
Election board member Bill Dills said he is in favor of keeping the location in Cherokee as long as it is worth the cost.
“To me, the function of the Board of Elections … is to provide people the opportunity to vote, the way they want to,” he said. “What I want to see is how we can work with those people and get them to take advantage of early vote.”
The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010 and only 226 people used it to vote during that election.
“When you break that down cost wise, it’s not efficient,” said Joan Weeks, director of Swain County’s Board of Elections.
Board of Elections chairman James Fisher echoed a similar sentiment, adding that there is no way to know what the turnout will be this time around.
“We are not against having (early voting) on the reservation or anywhere,” he said. But, “it’s not worthwhile if it’s not used.”
The 2010 election was the first time an early voting site was offered in Cherokee and may need more time to catch on.
Tyson and Dills said they believe more voters will turn out at the early voting site in Cherokee if it is offered again this election.
“Because it was new, a lot of people didn’t know it was there,” Tyson said, adding that the 2010 election did not include a presidential race.
States often see a spike in voter turnout during presidential election years such as this year.
“I think we would see a larger turnout from there,” Tyson said.
However, Dills said that the board did everything it could, including talking to tribal leaders and posting a notice in the tribe’s newspaper, to inform voters about the new site.
“I don’t know what else you could do to make people aware,” Dills said, adding that “a large number” still drove to Bryson City to cast their ballots early.
The cost of holding an election comes from county coffers, namely property taxes. Residents on the Cherokee reservation don’t pay property taxes in Swain County, however, so they don’t directly contributing to the expense.
But the economic benefit — from jobs to tourism — that Swain reaps from the tribe and its massive casino operation far outpaces the about $3,500 outlay the county would pay to staff an early voting site.
The election board plans to meet with Larry Blythe, vice chief for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to ensure that the tribe indeed even wants the early voting site. In 2010, the tribe worked with the election board to provide a suitable site.
Not having a site would “put people at disadvantage,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks.
Tribal Council member Perry Shell said that the purpose of the Board of Elections is to make it as convenient as possible to vote.
“I think it’s important that people have every opportunity to vote,” said Shell, who represents Big Cove.
Board members emphasized that discussions about this year’s early voting sites have just begun. The county has until March 1 to submit its list of early voting sites to the state. Early voting for the primary begins April 19 and ends May 5.
“We just opened initial conversations about it,” Fisher said. “A whole bunch of this scuttlebutt is much ado about nothing.”
The board decided to place a voting site in Cherokee prior to the 2010 election after an elderly Swain County resident and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians made a formal written request.
Early voting has grown steadily in popularity after the state passed a new law in 1990s mandating that the convenient ballot casting be made available to the masses. Before then, it was only an option for the elderly, disabled or those with a qualified excuse that prevented them from getting to the polls on actual Election Day.
Of course, Cherokee residents aren’t the only ones in Swain County who face a long haul into Bryson City to take advantage of early voting. People in Alarka and Nantahala have similar distances to drive.
Fisher said he would like to have early voting locations everywhere, but with everybody tightening their budgets it would not be feasible.
John Herrin, a former member of the Swain election board, pointed out that Cherokee is a population center, whereas residents in other parts of the county, despite being a good distance from Bryson City, are more dispersed.
“You have quite a few registered voters in that area,” said Herrin, who helped set up the early voting site in Cherokee in 2010.
Cherokee residents are less likely to come into Bryson City in the regular course of their lives, while residents from rural reaches of the county usually eventually venture to town for groceries or other business.
Although the board has heard that other residents would like additional early voting sites throughout the county, none have made a formal appeal. A community member must make a written request, and the board must vote unanimously to approve a new location.
In addition to deciding whether to keep the Cherokee early voting site, the board is also expected to receive a request for another site near Nantahala. Residents of that area travel about 21 miles, or about 30 minutes, to cast early ballots in Bryson.
Fisher pointed out that people can mail in their ballots.
The decision to add an early voting site is “based on need and funding,” he said. “If (closing the site) would completely inhibit somebody from voting, I would fund it myself.”
The reservation lies partly in both Jackson and Swain counties. Jackson County operates an early voting site in Cherokee for those who live on the Jackson-side of the reservation near the Bingo Hall at a cost of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the hours and amount of staffing required.
The Swain Board of Elections’ next meeting is at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Board of Elections building off U.S. 19.
All counties in North Carolina are required to operate at least one early voting site, the result of a new law passed in the late 1990s aimed at making voting easier and more accessible
Most counties offered just one early voting site initially, but as early voting took off and grew in popularity, some counties have added a second or even third early voting site in response to demand. The cost ranges between $2,000 and $5,000 per site for each county.
Here’s what some counties are doing.
Swain’s main early voting site is in Bryson City. In 2010, it added a second early voting site in Cherokee at the Birdtown Community Center but is contemplating whether to do so again this year.
Macon County has a single early voting site in Franklin. However, election officials are considering adding a site in the Highlands area this year.
Haywood’s main early voting site is in Waynesville, with a second site in Canton every two years during state and federal elections.
Jackson County has a main early voting site in Sylva but has also run sites in Cullowhee, Cashiers, Scotts Creek and Cherokee. It has not decided where or how many sites it will open this year.
Older voters are hitting the early polls in force this election year, according to data gathered by Western Carolina University professor Chris Cooper.
In the 11th Congressional District, people choosing the early vote are “overwhelmingly white” — a whopping 96 percent — clock in with an average age of 62, and split pretty evenly down gender lines with 51 percent being female.
As for numbers, though, early voting hasn’t proven more popular this midterm than in recent elections.
According to Kim Bishop, Macon County’s elections director, early voting there was on track to match the 4,974 tally she saw in 2006. On Oct. 15 – about halfway through – 2,049 voters had already cast their ballots.
In Haywood County, the story is roughly the same. Haywood’s election supervisor, Robert Inman, said that 2006 — the last non-presidential election — saw about 6,600 early voters, and halfway through the early voting cycle 2,357 had cast ballots.
Cooper said this fits with the data that he has: there’s really no evidence to show that early voting changes who is showing up to the polls. He also points out that, despite common belief, one of the great myths of early voting is that it benefits one party disproportionately.
“I think one of (the misconceptions) is that early voting is really benefiting one party or the other. The reality is that neither one is really true,” said Cooper. “I don’t think early voting tends to benefit one party or the other. It’s a way to reduce excuses, but it doesn’t change the electorate.”
Cooper has been collecting and analzying data this election year that looks at Western North Carolina’s early voting numbers. He’s trying to see what those numbers say about not only the election, but the electorate. So far, he hasn’t come across too many surprises for this region.
“In general, it doesn’t look radically different than you’d expect,” he said, with the exception of a few counties like Graham. In this region, the statistics are relatively predictable: where there are more registered Democrats, there are also more early-voting Democrats. In counties that are more Republican-heavy, they’re getting more to the polls.
For most early voters, the draw is really the convenience. Lines are negligible, times are flexible and voting before Election Day is a significantly more hassle-free experience.
Howard Turner, a Haywood County resident who voted last week, said he was surprised by how many of his friends and acquaintances were not even registered voters, so that stirred in him a desire to make his vote count. But as for why he early voted?
“The lines,” Turner explained simply.
Jim and Wanda Marquart, Waynesville transplants from the North, said they were regular voters and voted early for the first time this year. But it wasn’t enthusiasm or strategy that took them to the polls.
“We’re going to be gone out of the state when Election Day comes,” said Jim Marquart, so they got in early.
While early voting might not be a game-changer for constituents, however, it does change things for candidates, who have to plan their strategies taking into account the shortened stumping timeline they’ll have. To win, candidates must plan ahead to win the hearts of early voters, not just the Election Day crowd.
“I think elections now are about who’s winning the mobilization game,” said Cooper. “Who’s getting people to show up and who’s not getting people to show up.”
District Court judge candidate Roy Wijewickrama said he knows that all too well.
“We’re still out there asking for votes, but it changes it in that we just have to get people out there earlier,” said Wijewickrama.
And Cooper’s data shows that, this year, they’ll have to win over more independent hearts to really take the early vote.
“Independents seem to be turning out in greater numbers this time than they did in 2006,” said Cooper on the blog where his results and analysis are posted. “Democratic turnout in the 11th District does seem to be down a bit and the Republican turnout is holding pretty steady compared to 2006. Maybe in our district it’s not an ‘enthusiasm gap’ with Republicans being more excited and mobilized than Democrats, but rather an ‘independent enthusiasm gap.’”
But whatever way the early vote swings, Cooper said he hopes his data will encourage all voters to pay attention to what’s going on where they live locally, instead of just keeping an eye on the national scene.
“These local races are important,” said Cooper. “These local races are worth paying attention to.”
Early voting began last Thursday, April 15, and runs through noon on Saturday, May 1. As of press time Tuesday, here’s how many people had voted early so far.
119 voted in the Democratic primary
54 voted in the Republican primary
3 voted in unaffiliated ballot for the judge’s race
176 total early voters
41,717 total registered voters
0.4% early voter turnout
Breakdown of registered voters:
142 voted in the Democrat primary
29 voted in the Republican primary
171 total early voters
9,434 total registered voters
1.8% early voter turnout
Breakdown of registered voters:
157 voted in the Democratic primary
20 voted in the Republican primary
27 voted on unaffiliated ballots
204 total early votes
26,469 total registered voters
.6% early voter turnout
Breakdown of registered voters:
114 voted in Democratic primary
86 voted in Republican primary
1 voted on an unaffiliated ballot
210 total early votes
24,275 total registered voters
.8% early voter turnout
Breakdown of registered voters
The Swain County Board of Commissioners heard concerns from a county election board member last week over the adequacy of the county’s early voting station.