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Complaints taking aim at future elections

FRANK TAYLOR
Managing Editor
Challenges to several ballots cast in last week’s Lincolnton city elections can’t affect the outcomes, but the people behind the complaints say they are really concerned about future elections.
The Republicans who wrote and organized the complaints told the Times-News in recent days that they want to force Democrat-controlled state and local election boards to commit to a consistent policy on absentee-ballot requests in advance of major statewide elections in 2012.
The Lincoln County Board of Elections is set to consider the challenges on Tuesday when its three members canvass to certify last week’s results, according to county Elections Director Bill C. Beam.
With an appeal likely the next stop would be the N.C. Board of Elections, whose deputy director, Johnnie McLean, talked with the Times-News in a phone interview last week.  “Each challenge is received by the local board initially,” she said.
At both that level and during an appeal to the state, “the challenger is responsible for the burden of proof,” McLean said. “We can’t just have people filing willy-nilly.”
Because the board hearings don’t constitute judicial proceedings, she was at a loss to explain statements from the challengers indicating they hoped to establish a “precedent.”
But those raising questions about absentee ballots have since explained their position further: They aren’t looking for a legal precedent, but for a consistent policy.
Lincolnton City Council member Devin Rhyne, who was the signer of record on most of the 27 challenges, told the Times-News in a phone interview on Sunday that he thinks state statutes governing absentee-ballot requests include ambiguous “gray areas” and he hopes the challenges will force officials to commit to “black-and-white policies.”
The challenges made by Rhyne and others focus on cases in which a postcard with an absentee ballot request was filled out in one handwriting and then signed in what appears to be a second handwriting.
His interprets this as a violation of North Carolina General Statute 163-230.2, which says an absentee-ballot request is “valid only if it is written entirely by the requester personally, or is on a form generated by the county board of elections and signed by the requester.”
In a few other cases, the complaints point to a form used in absentee-ballot requests that was not generated by the county board of elections, as apparently required under the same state law.
“There are some irregularities and they need to be looked into,” Rhyne said.
However, Rhyne confirmed that he became involved only after county Republican activist Martin Oakes of Denver asked for his help, because state law requires a challenge come from a voter who lives in the same precinct as the one in which the ballot was cast, in this case Lincolnton-North.
Oakes told the Times-News on Thursday that he wants “a fixed policy,” even though he “thinks current strict rules are silly.”
Oakes believes Democratic legislators passed the law governing absentee-ballot requests in 2002 with specific guidelines about who can fill them out because of a direct response to Republicans’ successful get-out-the-vote efforts using prepared postcards during earlier elections cycles.
Now that “different Democrats” in elections like those in Lincolnton last week find those rules inconvenient when they need to get out the vote, according to Oakes, he thinks enforcement of these rules isn’t consistent.
During the run-up to last week’s vote, several irregularities emerged, including a voter who improperly voted by both mail-in absentee and one-stop. Local officials forwarded requests for guidance on such issues to state election leaders.
Asked whether county elections staff ever emailed her about concerns over handwriting issues with absentee-ballot requests, McLean said she could not remember receiving any such inquiries. However, she has yet to respond to a formal open-records request issued Wednesday, asking her to verify whether any such correspondence took place and produce it if it did.
Although the challenges can’t affect the outcome of last week’s races, in which three incumbents prevailed regardless of party affiliation, the results indicate that absentee ballots were a key part of Democratic Party strategy.
Republicans won every race and carried almost every precinct on Election Day, but trailed heavily in both mail-in and one-stop absentee votes. Although Republican Mayor John Gilleland received enough support on Election Day to claim victory, the advance votes gave Democrats key victories in two council races, allowing them to maintain their historic control over City Hall.
In one race, a 62-vote advantage in mail-in absentee votes for Democrat Larry Mac Hovis over Tim Shain was the same as Hovis’ final margin of victory.
Republicans have indicated that they don’t necessarily want the state and local elections officials to say absentee ballots can’t be requested in the ways they were during Lincolnton elections. Instead, the Republicans want to know what’s fair game for them to try themselves when the stakes are much greater next year.

Editor’s Note: After this article went to press for Monday’s edition, the Times-News received a response to its open-records request from North Carolina Board of Elections Director Johnnie McLean, who said she received email correspondence from Lincoln County elections officials in advance of last week’s city elections on another matter, but not in regard to the specific issues raised in the challenges discussed in this article.

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