State concerned over Columbus County board’s dismissal of election protest on technicality

Protest over sheriff’s race will be heard by State Board of Elections

State concerned over Columbus County board’s dismissal of election protest on technicality

WHITEVILLE, NC (WECT) - Since the civil lawsuit over the Columbus County sheriff’s seat has been settled out of court, with both candidates vying to be sheriff agreeing to temporarily sit on the sidelines, the case to determine who should hold the disputed seat now moves to the State Board of Elections. The NCSBOE will consider pending protests over the election, and will determine the rightful sheriff or call for a new election if necessary.

The NCSBOE will not consider the Columbus sheriff’s race until after the NC-9 dispute is settled, which has left one of the state’s congressional seats vacant, and hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians without a representative in the United States House. While that race has priority, WECT did get some insight into the NCSBOE’s position on the Columbus County sheriff’s race in the court file for the now resolved civil lawsuit.

Plaintiff’s Exhibit 3 from incumbent Sheriff Lewis Hatcher’s lawsuit against challenger Jody Greene is an email from NCSBOE attorney Joshua Lawson to Columbus County attorney Amanda Prince. The Dec. 18 email raises questions about the Columbus County Board of Election’s handling of a protest filed in the sheriff’s race.

Columbus County resident and Democratic Party Vice Chair Gloria Smith filed a protest in the race raising questions about whether Jody Greene lived in Columbus County in the year leading up to the election as required by law. Her protest also raises concerns about voters being turned away on Election Day because of technical issues at one precinct.

However, Smith inadvertently checked the wrong box on the protest form she submitted on Nov. 21, 2018. She indicated in error on the form that she was not a registered voter in Columbus County, even though in fact she has been a registered voter in the county since 1992, and has voted in nearly every primary and general election since.

Even though that information is verifiable online through the voter search page of the State Board of Elections, and Smith’s active political presence presumably made her a known figure to elections officials in the small town of Whiteville, county Board of Elections members appear to have used Smith’s typo as an excuse to throw out her protest in its entirety.

“Dismissal based on technical nonconformity with form requirements is exceedingly rare in our State, and it will be vital that we are able to review the manner in which the County Board arrived at that decision,” Lawson wrote in his email to Prince requesting a copy of the transcript from the county Board of Elections’ hearing in which voted to dismiss Smith’s claim.

WECT has obtained a copy of the transcript in question. On Nov. 30, the Columbus County Board of Elections met to hear several protests stemming from the election, and Smith’s protest was the first one it heard that day.

First, the board unanimously refused to accept an amendment Smith filed to her protests, which more clearly states her concerns that Greene did not live at the Cerro Gordo address he listed on the form when he filed to run for office.

Board member Mack Ward initially suggested Smith’s amendment was filed well after the deadline, but after being told by county attorney Prince that “there is no statutory time limit for the amendment,” the board took a different avenue to throw it out.

“Well then, I’d just make a motion we’re not accepting any more amendments,” Ward said in a motion seconded by board Vice Chair Bonita Blakney and then approved by the two other board members present at the meeting, Chairman Harold Phipps and Secretary JoAnn Garrell.

The board was then instructed by Prince that the next order of business was to consider whether Smith’s initial protest “complied procedurally and if probable cause exists that irregularities or misconduct have occurred.”

“Don’t she need to be sworn in?” Garrell asks, presumably referring to Smith.

Prince responds she does not, that the board first has to consider the protest itself. The board fails to discuss a single issue raised by Smith in her 25-page protest, but instead is directed by Mack Ward to the aforementioned typo indicating Smith was not a registered voter.

“I’d just like to bring your attention to item number three on the front page of the protest….based on the block that is marked on item three of the front page of this protest, I make a motion to dismiss this action,” Ward said.

With no discussion, Garrell seconds the motion. Phipps, apparently confused over what exactly was happening, asks, “What action?”

His question is ignored. Garrell asks, “Concur?” To which Blakney responds “Concur.”

“Y’all made all your motions?” Phipps then asks. After being told they had, Phipps announces, “I concur with them.”

That is the entirety of the consideration Smith’s protest was given. She has appealed to the State Board of Elections.

Even though the county elections board refused to accept Smith’s amendment, NCSBOE Spokesman Patrick Gannon tells WECT “that State Board has fairly wide latitude when it comes to consideration of protests.” He then directed us to General Statute 163A-1180, which addresses the Authority of State Board over protests, which reads in part:

“The State Board may consider protests that were not filed in compliance with G.S. 163A-1177, may initiate and consider complaints on its own motion, may intervene and take jurisdiction over protests pending before a county board, and may take any other action necessary to assure that an election is determined without taint of fraud or corruption and without irregularities that may have changed the result of an election.”

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