The North Carolina State Board of Elections on Monday ordered a new election in the Town of Dobson Board of Commissioners.
J. Wayne Atkins and Walter White each had seemed to secure a successful re-election run, garnering the top two voting totals in a four-way race. Atkins received 184 votes, while White tallied 167, in the Nov. 8 election. John Jonczak was third at 159, while the late Sharon Gates-Hodges, who died during the campaign, recorded 106 votes.
However, two challenges were filled to the race — one by Jonczak. The local board of elections had, in a split vote, forwarded the case to the state with the recommendation a new election be ordered. That recommendation was upheld Monday and the state board of elections has ordered a new election be held on March 7.
The state said the same names will be listed in the same order the exception being the name of Sharon Gates-Hodges, who passed away before the general election. Her name will be removed and there will be no new filing period. That means no new candidates may enter the race that will now pit incumbents White and Atkins against newcomer and local businessman Jonczak.
The pair of challenges to the results were filed by candidate Jonczak and resident Jimmy Yokeley over the conduct of a poll worker. It was asserted, and never challenged, that a poll worker in Dobson had acted improperly by providing information on the candidates to voters.
Yokeley testified the poll worker told a couple in front of him in line at the Dobson polling location that a candidate had died, that the poll worker told him a candidate had died — and said the dead candidate was Jonczak —and resident Nancy Hill sent an affidavit that she was told by the poll worker a candidate had died.
Yokeley told the board the poll worker violated two state statutes which, “Changed the outcome of the Dobson commissioners’ race.”
Commissioners Atkins and White had filed appeals to the local ruling. In their appeals the two said the county’s hearing had been rushed, did not present enough evidence, and did not prove that the poll worker’s actions had any influence on the election.
The extent to which the poll worker’s conduct influenced the outcome of the election is unable to be determined. The board asked for election day data that showed Jonczak got the most in-person votes at the Dobson polling location, and indicated the poll worker in question — whose name has never been released by the Board of Elections — did work at the polling station all day on election day.
County elections chairwoman Michella Huff was asked by the board if the poll worker in questioned had been subpoenaed or asked to make a statement to the county board – she had not. The poll worker in question remained at her duty station even after Huff arrived for an in-person investigation on election day after the complaint reached her office.
The appeals from White and Atkins were dismissed by the state board in part for the claim they made that the county hearing had been rushed or presented partial evidence. Only what the county board sent to the state shall be considered in a hearing.
While the state board of elections may have agreed that hearing from the poll worker could have been illuminating, that ship sailed when the county board accepted the motion to advance the challenges to Raleigh with only the evidence they had in hand.
With the appeals of the challenges of the election results dismissed, the board then voted unanimously to hold a new election for the two Dobson commissioner seats. Early voting for the new Dobson commissioners’ race will begin Feb. 16 and the election will be held on March 7.
State board member Stacy Eggers said he knew that holding a new election would be challenging and an inconvenience, but he said that holding a new election “is the proper remedy.”
State Elections Board Chair Damon Circosta called the actions of the poll worker “unfortunate” and said of the decision calling for a new election, “We don’t do this lightly.”
State elections director Karen Brinson Bell told the state board there would be no problems with those date. Huff agreed saying her office had been aware these were the dates under consideration, and Surry County would be ready.
Atkins and White will continue to serve on the Dobson board in completion of their current terms, according to state election law.
In comments made later Monday after the board hearing, Huff said that if there were to be two polling places on election day, that cost plus early voitng and absentee voting would be less than $15,000.
Removal of board members?
The state board then held a prima facie hearing on a challenge filed from Bob Hall against two members of the Surry County Board of Elections in which he asks for their removal from the county elections board.
Much as when the county board heard the evidence from Jonczak and Yokeley, the state wanted to talk over the filing from Hall, the former long-time director of Democracy NC, in which he asked that Tim DeHaan and Jerry Forestieri be removed from the county board.
The two local board of elections members took umbrage with the 2018 ruling of Federal Judge Loretta Biggs that knocked down North Carolina’s voter identification law and wrote a letter containing strong language about their feelings on the judge and her ruling.
Hall asserted that the two board members could not execute their oath of office while making partisan statements such as when they wrote, “I don’t view election law per North Carolina State Board of Elections as legitimate or Constitutional.”
In his complaint to the state he wrote, “They take an oath when they begin service and it is an oath to uphold the state law, the state and federal constitution, and obey the authorities and rulings of the state.” For them to openly challenge the state’s authority to conduct elections is a step beyond the First Amendment, he contends.
First the state board must establish if Hall had any standing to make a challenge to Surry County’s board of elections as he does not live in the county. The state’s lawyer informed that in his opinion the wording of the statutes does allow for Hall to make a protest.
Hall said their conduct and language in a letter sent to their fellow board members was of such a charged partisan nature that it would seem to invalidate their oaths of office to execute the laws of the United States and North Carolina. “It can be hard for the people of Surry County to have confidence that people can serve in the manner they should,” he said when board of elections members take such strong public stances.
Members of the state board found the issue of the Hall complaint to be less cut and dried than of the appeals to the election results. The First Amendment protects free speech, and the county board members were within their rights to express an opinion on what Eggers said is a charged issue in this state.
He went on to warn of a slippery slope if the state board chooses to start bringing before them county board members to explain matters of their opinion and that it may have a “chilling effect” on other who may want to serve.
“Mr. Forestieri choosing not to proceed with the county canvass is concerning and I think it (is) what merits moving forward with a hearing. The distinction with Mr. DeHaan is he did in fact discharge his duties and proceed with the canvass certification,” Eggers said before the vote.
As this was a preliminary hearing on the Hall complaint there was no testimony or statements. Chair Circosta said that he, like Eggers, had questions about the validity of the complaints against DeHaan and Forestieri.
He said an actual hearing was needed to make a final determination as to whether their conduct rose to the level of removal, “I do not have my mind made up, but it is important we hear these issues.”
In a unanimous vote the board advanced the complaint on Forestieri to a formal hearing, they also advanced the DeHaan complaint in a 3-2 vote with members Eggers and Tommy Tucker voting no. The dates for these hearing are to be determined.