By Chad Nance
The newly seated, Republican majority Forsyth County Board of Elections had a contentious beginning with sparks flying between citizens, Democratic Party activists, campaign staffers, and newly minted Chairman Ken Raymond(R) who still seems to be trying to get a handle on exactly what his position is- including some election law and practice basics. In their first decision the Forsyth County Board of Elections made the determination that they know better than the City of Winston-Salem and voted 2-1 along party lines to deny the City’s request for two new early voting locations. Board member Fleming El-Amin(D) indicated that he would be appealing the decision to the State Board of Elections. The new board includes Secretary Stuart Russell(R) along with El-Amin and Raymond.
The Cooper-Cardwell Elections Room was packed with extra chairs that had to brought in to accommodate the crowd. It was clear by conversations around the room that while the new polling places were of concern, the real energy behind those who attended was in opposition to the new Voter ID laws passed and signed in the last moments of the 2013 legislative session.
A request was made by the city of Winston-Salem through Mayor Allen Joines’ office for two additional early voting polling sites for the September 10th municipal primary. By statute (more on this later) in North Carolina, cities are responsible for paying for odd-year municipal elections and counties must pick up the tab for even-year races. The City of Winston-Salem has approved funds to cover the cost on the basis that there are primaries in almost every ward, including primaries in the West and East Ward where the primary will essentially decide City Council races.
Chairman Raymond opened up the floor for citizen comments before they voted on the request. Current City Council member Molly Leight spoke first telling the board, “I certainly support the Mayor’s request for new early voting sites. This is America and we need to be making it easier for people to vote… not to put road blocks in their way.”
Leight was followed by a citizen named Jane Daughtery who addressed the board saying, “This is a municipal election and the city knows what it needs.”
JoAnne Allen, an attorney who attended with Mayoral candidate Gardenia Henley began at a heightened pitch saying, “Let’s stop using excuses.” She went into a ramble about the Mayor making the request and stated her opposition to the new polling places on the grounds that granting them would serve no purpose. Perpetual candidate Henley followed after Allen by echoing her statements and saying that her main concern was that if new polling places were approved they “…have someone to watch the activity at the Board of Elections.” Henley was referring to incidents in 2010 and 2012 like those reported by Yes! Weekly’s Jordan Green during the last Democratic primary.
Henley also indicated that, in her view, denying the request would not disenfranchise anyone including African Americans or the elderly. When CCD approached her following the meeting, candidate Henley re-iterated her feeling that voters were not being suppressed by the decision not to add early polling locations or the new Voter Suppression laws passed by the General Assembly. “To have people show Voter ID is effective.” Henley stated.
The most eloquent and prepared comments came from State Representative Evelyn Terry(D-NC71) who spoke about her Grandfather’s difficulties in voting during the days of restrictive Jim Crow laws. “Can we call this a Democracy when our voting rights are stripped?” Terry said, “I believe that just, reasonable people will allow that access to be increased.” Representative Terry voiced her support for the additional polling locations, but made it clear that she was also talking about the new slate of Voter ID laws passed by the Republican Supermajority in Raleigh. Rep. Terry sat down to applause.
Forsyth County Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Campbell spoke about the logistical reasons behind the request for new polling places, including the fact that the East and West Ward primaries will most likely decide those City Council races. “It’s going to be a busy primary, which is a good thing.” Campbell said. “We want people to vote.”
Former Chairwoman of the Forsyth County BOE, Linda Sutton, spoke beginning on a far softer note than she wound up on. “I just wanted to stop by and echo the sentiments of others,” Sutton said regarding comments in support of the two new polling locations. Over the next two minutes Sutton would raise the emotional temperature in the room referring to Voter ID legislation as the “Suppressive, Jim Crow style legislation getting ready to be signed.” Ms. Sutton directly addressed the new Board of Elections admonishing them, “Your responsibility as board members is to the voters of Forsyth County – not ALEC, not Art Pope, and not the Koch Brothers.” she said referring to the fact that ALEC (of whom Speaker of the NCGA Thom Tillis was chosen “Legislator of the Year” for in 2011) has used their people in State legislatures, primarily in the South East, to push for restrictive new voting laws targeted to suppress the vote among the young, minorities, the disabled, and the elderly. “You should be making it easier to vote.” Sutton said. “Do not follow the line that is coming down from on high.”
Rev. Paul Lowe, the pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church and the Democratic Party’s 5th District Chairman, spoke saying, “I’m in support of the extra sites being added. I am concerned about the poor and the disenfranchised.”
Once everyone who had signed up had their say Chairman Raymond closed the floor to discussion by the public. At the close of the comment period there had been 8 people to speak in favor of the new polling sites and three people who spoke against. Those who spoke against were two Mayoral candidates who tried to use the request as a platform to imply that Mayor Joines had made the request for clearly political reasons. The other person who spoke against was attorney JoAnn Allen who did so wearing a “Gardenia Henley for Mayor” campaign button.
Board member Flemming El-Amin spoke first. “Transparency is very important in a democratic society.” Mr. El-Amin read the elections statute which governs request made by municipalities to county BOE’s in order to request additional polling sites. This must be done in writing by the office of a City official, and in the case of Winston-Salem that official is Mayor Allen Joines. “I see no problem with two new sites.” El-Amin stated indicating that he feels Polo Park Rec and an appropriate location in East Winston near the bus-lines would be a positive step to increasing voter access to the polls. Mr. El-amin also pointed out that “There is no economic impact on our board at all. Resources are being provided for us.” The City of Winston-Salem pays for odd year elections and they have already approved funds for the polling sites.
Chairman Raymond began his comments and things began to unravel a bit and take some truly weird turns. “I don’t see the need for additional voting sites for this primary.” he said. The Republican went directly after Mayor Joines saying, “The Mayor has access through his position as mayor for the dispensation of funds.” While making an allusion to something improper on the part of Winston-Salem’s mayor he did not provide any evidence or information to back up the idea that Mayor Joines would have political advantage by the addition of the sites. In fact there would be no advantage for Joines. He does not have an organized opponent that has any real chance of unseating him. The “Republican” candidate is not supported in any way by the Forsyth County Republican party and Henley is a candidate in almost every election cycle, where she is always on the losing end of Democratic primaries such as her unsuccessful bid for Governor in 2012. The only benefits would be to voters and City Council candidates in the City’s West and East Wards.
Raymond went on to say “The additional funds does not justify…” the new locations in spite of the fact that it would cost the BOE nothing at all. In a few stunning moments Raymond showed everyone at the meeting that he knows very little about election law or elections in general. “It was my understanding that the county board is to handle expenses, not the city.” Raymond said, clearly confused. Rob Coffman, Director of the Forsyth County BOE had to step in and inform the Chairman that by law city governments must pay for odd year municipal elections and county governments fund even years. Coffman also had to help Raymond with basic parliamentary procedure and assist in running the meeting.
“It’s the law actually.” Coffman said to Raymond who sat blank-faced in his seat… then he went right back to saying that he opposed the new sites because of the cost as if he had heard nothing in the previous two minutes. Raymond seemed to be staying “on message” with talking points in the same way that political candidates are prepped to do.
Those in the room couldn’t hold their emotions or comments in any longer. Rev. Paul Lowe spoke up interrupting the meeting and asking Raymond “Why if the city is paying for it, is it a concern?”
“Times will be tight.” Raymond answered.
“You’re talking about the future.” Lowe responded.
“Times are tight right now.” Raymond said still not apparently understanding that the City of Winston-Salem has approved funds and none will be paid by the county BOE.
Rep. Evelyn Terry stood up and cut in, “There are two races that will be decided by the primary.” She reiterated. Raymond began to try to say the same thing again about who pays for the polling locations and Rob Coffman had to once more help him out with reality.
Once the room was settled down, the board voted. El-Amin voted in support of the new poling places while the Republicans voted against. The room erupted in commotion as the crowd stood to their feet calling foul and Raymond banged on his gavel. “Do either of you live in the wards that will be impacted?” a citizen named Jane Daughtery directed at the board members. Stuart Russell looked like he wanted to crawl under the table, El-Amin looked amused, and Raymond turned to her and said, “I live in the North Ward.”
El-Amin indicated above the racket that he would be filing an appeal on the vote, which is his right under the law.
Rev. Paul Lowe yelled from the back of the room, “I’m fine. I just know who the enemy is!” referring to Chairman Raymond.
Paul Foley,former General Counsel of the North Carolina Republican Party and a McCrory appointee to the NC State BOE told Raymond, “The Chair can hold people in contempt, and I’d like to see it.”
Most of the crowd spilled noisily out of the room into the hallway where they got louder. Foley jumped up and went into the hallway while Raymond tried to get control of the meeting back. Foley could be heard asking the people in the hall to be quiet and Rep. Terry’s voice could clearly be heard in the meeting room when she answered Foley, “This is our building!”
Once things got back under control the board voted unanimously for some consolidation of individual precincts that have been rendered almost void by re-districting. Raymond then took the board into a closed session regarding a complaint or issue with an employee. One thing is clear… this Forsyth County Board of Elections is a complete circus which appears to make arbitrary decisions in order to try to disparage individual public officials and provide for partisan political gain – not a new phenomenon. And Chairman Raymond would do himself well to actually learn a little something about elections in North Carolina and get himself a copy of Roberts Rules of Order.