State board sends sheriff’s election protest back to Columbus County, requires officials to take up residency issue

Unusual absentee ballot numbers in Columbus County general election.
Unusual absentee ballot numbers in Columbus County general election.
Updated: Mar. 21, 2019 at 6:13 PM EDT
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COLUMBUS COUNTY, NC (WECT) - The North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE) has directed the Columbus County Board of Elections to reconsider a protest it denied on a technicality stemming from the 2018 election.

Voter Gloria Smith filed a protest over the results of the sheriff’s election, but her protest was thrown out because she checked the wrong box on a form. The NCSBE voted unanimously Thursday the county erred by not considering the merits of Smith’s case.

Republican challenger Jody Greene received 37 more votes than incumbent Columbus County Sheriff Lewis Hatcher in the November election, but the results were never certified. In an apparent violation of state law, while elections protests were still pending with the state, the county swore Jody Greene in as sheriff on Dec. 3.

In December, the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office and the State Board of Elections said Hatcher should still be serving as sheriff until the elections protests are settled, but for months, Greene refused to step aside. The same absentee ballot issues that prompted the NCSBE to call for a new election in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district race appear to be present in Columbus County. An unusually high number of requested absentee ballots disappeared, and McCrae Dowless, the man arrested on elections fraud charges in that race, was also hired to work on Greene’s campaign.

Additionally, there are concerns Greene did not meet the residency requirements to make him eligible to run for sheriff. In North Carolina, you must live in the county where you want to serve as sheriff for one year before the election.

There is no permanent dwelling at the address in Cerro Gordo that Greene claimed as his residential address when filing to run. Duke Energy told WECT there is no power service at that address, and Columbus County does not have any permits on file that indicate someone lives there.

In addition to dismissing Smith’s protest, they also refused to consider an amendment she filed challenging Greene’s eligibility to run based on residency.

The board voted 3-2 to require the residency question to be considered at an evidentiary hearing. During its meeting Thursday afternoon, NCSBE members said they have allowed appeals in the past, and that the residency issue was too critical to ignore.

“Residency is such a big matter because if someone’s a non-resident of the county, they are not entitled to be sheriff as I understand it,” Chairman Bob Cordle said to fellow board members. “It goes to the heart of case. If [a candidate were a] non-resident, we’d need a new election.”

Greene’s attorney, Phillip Isley, didn’t fight the issue.

“We are willing to discuss residency at the proper time,” he said during the teleconference.

Isley said he had greater concern his client wouldn’t get a fair hearing in Columbus County, requesting the board decide on the issues themselves rather than sending it back to Columbus County.

However, the board voted 4-1 to remand the issue back to the county with more than one board member noting the precedent of handling residency issues at a local level, and the need to establish a factual record.

The board gave Columbus County until April 5 to hold the hearing and submit an official order.

There was also discussion of an order the NCSBE filed Wednesday about documents the protesters attempted to submit in this case.

Greene’s attorneys successfully argued some of the documents are protected by a court order issued by Judge Paul Shirley in the civil case Hatcher sued, seeking to be reinstated.

Days before that case was set to go to trial, Greene and Hatcher reached a settlement agreement outside of court. The terms of the settlement agreement were kept confidential, but the public was told Greene would step aside, and that Jason Soles, head of the sheriff’s detectives division, would assume the day-to-day duties of sheriff until the matter of the rightful sheriff was settled.

Instead, Greene’s second in command, Aaron Herring, appeared to take over day-to-day operations of the office.

The NCSBE said it did not want to inadvertently make public documents subject to a protective order, and thus approved Greene’s request they be stricken from the record.

It was determined that due to the controversial nature of the case, representatives from the NCSBE staff will be present at the hearing in Columbus County to make sure protocol is properly followed.

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