By Richard Sullins | firstname.lastname@example.org
An attorney for the North Carolina State Board of Elections has said that Lee County Republican Party Chairman Jim Womack’s request for access to the local voting machines in order to create “training videos” for a conservative group is not allowed under state law.
In an email to Lee County Elections Director Jane Fawcett, N.C State Board of Elections Associate General Counsel Paul Cox discussed the legal implications of providing access to county voting machines and creating a mock voting space at the county board of elections to train volunteer “poll watchers” recruited by the local GOP.
Fawcett told The Rant Womack left a voicemail message for her with the request, which was taken up at the Board of Elections meeting on March 2. Womack appeared in person at the meeting to make his case. After a hearing, the board denied Womack’s request.
The day before the Board of Elections meeting, the chairman of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, Republican Kirk Smith, sent a short email to Fawcett saying, “I have received a request from the local GOP Chair Jim Womack, to use the Lee County BOE site and equipment to produce a training video. Please consider his request as this video would help improve our volunteer poll observers as to their exact duties and limitations.” County Manager Dr. John Crumpton and County Attorney Whitney Parrish were copied on the email.
Less than two hours later, Smith received a response from Crumpton, telling him the request was inappropriate.
“Kirk – this request has to go to the Board of Elections. The Commissioners have no authority in this matter,” Crumpton wrote. “As you probably know the Board of Elections will deny this request. There are other ways for the GOP to gain access to videos of the equipment without compromising local equipment.”
Crumpton concluded his email with “I am sure Mr. Womack already understands that he cannot have access to the equipment. In the end, this is really a State Board of Elections decision and not a local decision. Jane Fawcett has already had discussions with me on this subject. Mr. Womack should be directed to make his request to the Lee County Board of Elections or the State Board of Elections.”
Womack fires back during commissioners meeting
On March 7, Womack was the lone speaker during the public comment period of the regular meeting of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, during which he lashed out at the elections board for its denial of his request.
The GOP chairman said he “made a reasonable request of our board of elections recently to use county-owned and taxpayer-paid voting equipment at our board of elections office for the purpose of making supervised training videos so that poll observers and judges can be trained statewide on important election integrity matters.”
Womack said he is president of the Election Integrity Network and it was his job “to train over 5,000 observers statewide and these training videos were pivotal to that end.”
The “Election Integrity Network” is an arm of the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI) and describes itself as “a coalition of conservative activists, leaders, public officials, and organizations (working) to advance election integrity reforms nationwide.”
The CPI is run by former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and includes former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows as a senior partner who joined in January 2021 to “help create more members (of Congress) like Jim Jordan, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley – conservative firebrands with strong networks and staffs.” Meadows himself is facing scrutiny over allegations he used an address at which he has allegedly never lived for voter registration purposes.
Womack continued his complaint to commissioners, saying “election board attorneys Jonathan Silverman, Susan Feindel , and Shannon Gurwitch all neglected to consider the request” and that the election board members “demonstrated genuine lack of concern about election integrity through their neglect of even seeking more information about the request.”
SBE says granting request would violate law
After the March 2 meeting with Womack, the Lee County Board of Elections sought further guidance on the matter, this time from the State Board of Elections in Raleigh. In a lengthy email received on March 11, Cox told Fawcett “there are many legal problems with this request.”
Cox acknowledged he was aware the Lee County Republican Party had demanded county commissioners require the elections board grant Womack’s request on the grounds that the county owned both the equipment and the facility. His response to that argument was “the county board of commissioners does not have the authority under state law to require the county board of elections to accommodate this request,” citing a similar case from Graham County in 2011.
Cox continued that “the county board (of elections) should avoid any situation in which it is offering its official resources — much less its office space and voting equipment — in the service of a political party’s partisan efforts. Poll observers are not elections officials. They are partisan representatives of the political parties who are authorized by law to observe voting from within the voting enclosure, subject to strict limitations” of state law and the administrative code.
Going even further, Cox said “to protect the integrity of elections, North Carolina law places strict access controls on voting equipment. In particular, a ‘voting system shall be stored in a location such that access is restricted to county board of elections staff and the system cannot be tampered with when not in use on election day.'”
He also pointed out the primary duties of any local elections board is to conduct voter registration and to prepare for, and conduct, elections within the county. To set up a mock polling place for the purpose of serving one political party’s training efforts and properly supervise the party’s use of a nonpartisan voting facility and its equipment would be a diversion of the county office’s resources from their core responsibilities.
Womack’s claim of withholding “surplus” funds baseless
During his remarks to commissioners on March 7, Womack also made a claim that elections board member and local attorney Jonathan Silverman “should be reprimanded for his insistence that the Board of Elections will not give back the $300,000 surplus they had left over from the budget last year.”
A county department having $300,000 in unspent funds three-quarters of the way through the annual budget cycle would normally be cause for a red flag. But in this case, the unspent funds are the result of not just one, but two postponed elections. The first was the municipal election in the city of Sanford originally scheduled for November 2021, and the second was the March 2022 primary, both of which had to be rescheduled because of court challenges to new voting maps that resulted from the redistricting process across the state last fall.
With the primary having been rescheduled to May 17, most – if not all – of those funds will be expended before the fiscal year ends on June 30. The general election for the Sanford city election will be set within the next several days and will likely take place in late July.
The Lee County Board of Elections will meet again on March 16 to formally receive the receive the response from Associate General Counsel Cox as part of their regular meeting.