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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Practicality and partisanship: A look at the NHC Board of Elections days before early voting

New Hanover County Board of Elections members Bruce Kemp and Lyana Hunter on Tuesday. The pair have sparred frequently during the board’s past two meetings. (Port City Daily/Carl Blankenship)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Derrick Miller, a Democrat of the New Hanover County Board of Elections, spent long stretches of the board’s Oct. 4 meeting with his brow furrowed, eyes closed and his hand or the arm of his glasses resting on his forehead.

Miller’s exhaustion was matched by his fellow members at a meeting one week later, Oct. 11, as a beleaguered board squabbled about elections minutiae for more than five hours. Bruce Kemp, one of two Republicans on the board, disagreed with his colleagues not putting their hands on every mail-in ballot application received, the staff’s procedure for placing election workers, the entryways poll observers are allowed to use at the library site, and even the minutes from previous meetings.

READ MORE: GOP flags hundreds of absentee ballots, review still uncertain

At one point, Kemp slammed his binder closed in anger and started calling for the meeting to be adjourned over Democratic member Lyana Hunter’s motion to halt discussion and vote on an issue.

On the other side of the room, fellow Republican Russ Bryan was taken aback by the entire situation.

“Is this how it’s going to end?” he opined.

It was only the second of 10 meetings that will stretch into mid-November for the purpose of reviewing absentee ballots and canvassing election results.

Yet, the public-facing infighting on the board is only part of what it faces heading into a heavily contested general election in a purple county. In the background, the local GOP is sending emails attempting to call the integrity of local elections into question, while the board chair and elections director are showing concern that outside agitators could try to interfere.

In the hot seat

Early voting starts Oct. 20 and New Hanover has proven itself a battleground county, often flip-flopping from red to blue.

In 2020, Joe Biden won the county by 2% of the vote. Statewide, Senate challenger and Democrat Cal Cunningham ultimately lost to incumbent Republican Thom Tillis, but in New Hanover Cunningham won by a fifth of a percentage point.

This year North Carolina’s second Senate seat is up for grabs; Democrat Cheri Beasley and Republican Ted Budd have been neck-and-neck in state polls for weeks. The race could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate.

The Senate race came up specifically as a security concern in an email BOE Chair Oliver Carter sent the board on Sept. 20. He wrote about concerns raised during the N.C. State Board of Elections’ summer conference that took place the week before, specifically conflicts of interest with sheriff’s offices and polling site security.

Port City Daily secured recordings of the talks Carter referenced in his email. The conference dedicated two hours on its first day to discussing conflicts of interest and building relationships with law enforcement.

Chris Harvey, who served as elections director for the state of Georgia in 2020, led the talk’s first section and discussed potential for perceived conflict of interest when an incumbent sheriff is up for reelection and provides security for polling sites in the county. Harvey noted an extreme example in 2002 when former DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey had his successor Derwin Brown murdered by deputies.

Elections Director Rae Hunter-Havens said the NHC office is actively working with local agencies on security, and there have been no incidents, such as break-ins, at polling places in recent memory.

Sheriff Ed McMahon has comfortably held onto the leadership position at the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office since 2010 but is up for reelection this year. NHCSO spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer said deputies treat calls for service to polling sites like any other and do not do so to carry out the sheriff’s whims.

Carter, who declined to comment for this story and directed all media inquiries to the elections director, did not appear concerned about the board’s relationship with the sheriff’s office in his message.

“I understand that the board and director have a longstanding working relationship with the sheriff’s department,” Carter wrote. “I have been grateful for their presence at our meetings, and I felt reassured by the confidence that you and others have in the sheriff’s office.”

Carter’s larger concern in the email was security from outside influences in the context of the sheriff’s race.

“My concern increases dramatically in a situation where our Senate seat is the 50th/51st one that will decide which party controls the Senate,” Carter wrote. “Under that latter scenario, we should all be prepared for out-of-county and out-of-state activists to descend upon us in droves. Think Florida in 2000 but with Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and Three Percenters coming to Wilmington from all over eastern N.C. in order to ‘stop the steal.’”

Hunter-Havens said there have been no threats to the board recently, but on Oct. 3 she sent a message to NHCSO Chief Deputy Kenneth Sarvis saying she heard a rumor the right-wing extremist group the Proud Boys — heavily linked to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack — would attend a meeting wherein the board would review absentee ballots. She asked for additional deputies to be present.

Sarvis agreed to send more than the usual one or two officers. Brewer confirmed a “normal” number of deputies were at the BOE’s Oct. 4 meeting but could not disclose how many because some were disguised in plain clothes. He also noted some left when it was clear there was no threat.

Despite the Proud Boys having made their presence at other local board meetings over the last two years — including at the school board and health and human services department meetings regarding mask mandates — they did not show up that day.

At the state level, similar concerns have been raised over security. On Sept. 2 the NCSBE issued a statement calling for orderly elections after some news reports indicated poll observers were intimidating voters during this year’s primary.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, an organization that tracks violence of militant social movements, published a report in May that shows political violence in the United States has declined heavily since last year. It also notes flashpoint events can cause bursts.

What is the GOP worried about?

A series of emails sent in September, all from New Hanover GOP Election Integrity Coordinator Julius Rothlein, call the results of the 2020 presidential election and the board’s current practices into question.

The emails rehash the GOP questioning 2020’s results by challenging absentee applications and complaining about BOE’s current formalities, including limited space to observe accuracy testing of voting machines and how it reviews mail-in ballots. Hunter-Havens told PCD there has been no evidence there were issues with the election two years ago, nor does she have concerns with the integrity of the county’s mail-in ballot procedures.

It’s not the first time Kemp has questioned election results. In July he was a witness for a challenge to the primary nomination of New Hanover County Schools Board of Education member Nelson Beaulieu. A recount placed Beaulieu two votes ahead of challenger Jennah Bosch. Another voter filed a complaint, and Kemp served as a witness in the case, which was unanimously rejected by the state board.

The GOP and Kemp’s complaints about handling mail-in ballots stem from a change in 2020. There were nearly 28,000 people who voted by mail in New Hanover County that year, vastly outpacing any other year in its history. In 2021, municipal elections only took in 276 mail-ins.

In the face of thousands of mail-in votes coming in weekly, the board decided to deviate from the previous practice of putting hands on every mail-in ballot by delegating the majority of review to staff. It did so per advice from the N.C. State Board of Elections.

When the board and staff assess mail-ins, they only look at the application printed on the outside of the envelope.

The board still spot-checked applications by choosing random precincts and reviewing problematic envelopes, as well as those duplicated for overseas service members. Hunter-Havens said there was not a standard number the board reviewed and it varied week to week. 

On Tuesday, staff spent about an hour processing and scanning 255 ballots — after they had already given the applications an initial review.

Kemp started off the Oct. 4 meeting by stating his opposition to the spot-checking practice, instead advising the board split into bipartisan teams and inspect each of the applications personally based on his interpretation of voting statutes that say the board shall review them.

Carter offered a more lenient interpretation and leaned into guidance from the state: The majority of the review could be delegated to staff. Carter said he studied the entirety of article 20, which encompasses procedures for county boards of elections. It directs the board to perform a task 181 times and almost all of them can be delegated. 

Bryan agreed with Carter.

Kemp casted doubt on the elections staff’s ability to properly analyze the ballots, noting the board has to be bipartisan, but there is no such requirement for others.  

Most staff members are unaffiliated, Hunter-Havens told PCD, and added they do not approach their work with a partisan stance.

Ultimately, the board voted along party lines to review 20% of the mail-ins it had received that week, in addition to any problematic envelopes, such as ones showing wear-and-tear from the postal service or being improperly sealed. An envelope was sent back to a voter Tuesday because there were large enough gaps in the seal to remove the ballot.

Bryan said he may be in favor of spot-checking in the future, depending on the number of absentees, but did not think it was necessary in this case. 

This week the board decided to follow the same protocol and will revisit the issue every week through Nov. 18.

Another major issue Kemp addressed was with parity between the parties of election workers. The county has 43 precincts and poll workers are not always evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

Local boards of elections solicit recommendations from each party to staff polling sites, with the end goal to strike a balance. But, as a practical matter, they may not always be able to.

Kemp refused to sign off on a required unanimous vote to accept the staff’s latest draft of poll worker assignments last week, so the board went back and solicited more recommendations from local party chairs to make adjustments to pass the staff lists this week. There are still 18 precincts without perfect parity as of Tuesday, but that could continue to change ahead of Election Day.

Elections Deputy Director Caroline Dawkins advised the board that people have to be willing to serve, undergo training, and may not be willing to participate outside the precinct where they live. Some people may drop out ahead of Nov. 8 as well.

On Tuesday this devolved into the board discussing a handful of individual placements out of hundreds of poll workers. Miller commented the board itself does not seem like a good tool to hash out the finer details of polling assignments.

The episode that led to Kemp and Hunter sparring was the last piece of discussion Tuesday night, but it ended with a glimmer of cooperation. It started when Bryan recommended modifying entrances and exits when the board of elections office becomes an early voting site. He wanted poll observers to use the same entrance as staff to observe curbside voting more easily.

Staff pushed back on the idea, as did Miller and Hunter, because it could create more confusion for voters and raised some concerns about the privacy of ballots. Carter tried to find some middle ground, voting against Hunter’s motion to quash discussion and making a pair of motions to amend Bryan’s: to move things around to keep observers from watching what voters were marking on their ballots and allowing staff to discontinue the practice after the first two days of early voting if it was untenable.

Kemp interrupted Hunter’s comments on the issue with his own call to question, but Bryan said he had no intention of seconding his party mate’s motion; he said the move lacked the civility for the board to have discussions. He also noted he did not make his recommendation to change the poll observer entrance with partisan intent.

The amendment passed with an unusual majority: Carter, Hunter and Kemp.

“It’s late. We’ve all been working hard. We all have lots of strong opinions about things,” Carter said. “But we need to remember, even despite those challenges, to keep our patience.”

Kemp, Carter and Bryan then voted to approve the change to the observer entrance. The board adjourned just after 10 p.m. on Tuesday and will reconvene at 5 p.m. next Tuesday.

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