By Richard Sullins |

Meeting in a rare emergency session Sunday afternoon, the Lee County Board of Elections heard allegations that members of the county’s Republican Party followed and harassed voters inside the protected buffer zone surrounding the entrance to early voting in Sanford’s 2022 municipal elections, as well as complaints from the Republican side that the area restricting where electioneering can take place violates state law.

Early voting for a new mayor and members of the Sanford City Council is now open at the Board of Elections office through Saturday, July 23, with Election Day held the following Tuesday on July 26.

An aerial map showing electioneering zones, as well as areas for curbside voting and handicapped parking for the 2022 Sanford municipal election at the Lee County Board of Elections on Elm Street. Source: Lee County Board of Elections.

A map provided by the Board of Elections shows the area where electioneering is restricted to (labeled “EL 5 spaces”). Other areas on the diagram are “HP,” designating handicapped parking, and “CS” for curbside voting. The elections board ruled any electioneering taking place outside the “EL” area is a violation of rules for this election, as it also was for the May 17 primary election.

It’s important to note that neither party objected to the arrangement shown on the map for the primary, nor did they voice any concerns when the Board of Elections voted in June to employ the same set up as they finalized plans for the Sanford municipal elections.

At issue is a claim made by Democrat Linda Rhodes, a candidate for an at-large Sanford City Council seat, that Republican candidate for Council Ward 1 Blaine Sutton and Lee County GOP Chairman Jim Womack were campaigning and approaching voters inside the buffer zone on Friday that had been established by the elections board.

Rhodes said this practice disrespected the rules created by the board under the authority given to its members under state law. This past Friday afternoon when Sutton and Womack continued to electioneer inside the buffer zone, Chief Elections Judge James French and Elections Director Jane Rae Fawcett went outside the building to ask again that each party limit its electioneering activities to inside the established zone.

Rhodes said five minutes later, Sutton and Womack were again outside the restricted area and inside the buffer zone, approaching voters as they got out of their automobiles.

The elections board reiterated Sunday that as chief judge, French has the authority to call on any resources he deems necessary to ensure voters are not harassed or intimidated as they enter the voting area, up to and including the use of local law enforcement.

Womack used his public comment time to make a counterclaim that the area where the board has restricted electioneering to violates state law. Section 163.166.4 of the North Carolina General Statutes says “in determining the dimensions of that buffer zone for each voting place, the county board of elections shall, where practical, set the limit at 50 feet from the door of entrance to the voting place, measured when that door is closed, but in no event shall it set the limit at more than 50 feet or less than 25 feet.”

Womack said he had measured the distance from the electioneering area to the entrance to the voting entrance of the building at 81 feet.

“We do not dispute the board’s authority to provide such a zone, but we certainly challenge this board’s attempt to enforce that Electioneering Zone as being exclusive to electioneering.,” he said.

Womack called the board’s placement of the electioneering space a violation of the rights of Republican candidates to free speech. He also said the board’s actions were “arbitrary and capricious.”

Board Chair Susan Feindel said the board’s choice of location was not an arbitrary one. Board members said they had serious concerns of voters being approached by party candidates or operatives as vehicles moved into and out of the parking area and Feindel said the board had authority under the state election law to adjust based on the facility that is being used for voting.

Board member Harry Stryffeler questioned whether the board actually had such authority, and Feindel responded it did because it created a safety issue for both voters and the operatives, citing section 163.48 of the General Statutes.

Board Vice Chairman Jon Silverman said the overall responsibility of the board is to ensure that citizens who want to vote and who are legally entitled have the opportunity to cast their ballots without fear of harassment, intimidation, or obstruction.

Silverman speculated about the motivation behind Womack’s claim by saying “it is a shame that we have certain elements in this county, and one of them is Jim Womack who addressed us. He is a problem to this community. Not his party, but he is.”

“I have watched him. He has intimidated people and obstructed people. I have seen him do this and it is a problem,” Silverman continued. “And the reason is that the legislature, in its infinite wisdom, because Jim Womack is not the first person who has wanted to interfere and intimidate people who want to vote. He didn’t make it up. He’s just part of our history.”

Silverman said Section 163.48 gives local boards of elections the right and the authority to configure voting sites by providing them with a tool to maintain order and enforce the peace during elections, within given parameters.

“I am at peace with the statute and with God that what we have done is fair, consistent with the laws of this state, and it’s the best thing that this board could do,” he said.

The board decided to leave the current voting configuration as it is through the municipal election, but it also will encourage its chief judges to enforce the law on a case-by-case basis so that equal protection is provided to all voters.

Womack later posted a video on the Lee GOP’s Facebook page that he had recorded of the meeting. It was accompanied by a posting that said, in part, that the action of the board “is a clear violation of our candidates’ constitutional rights” and that “we will not be deterred. If necessary, we will see them in court.”

The meeting broke up and people began filing out of the room. Feindel implored Womack to “be reasonable, Jim,” and he responded with “in our minds, we are being very reasonable.”

“But not in ours,” Feindel responded.

As Womack began to walk through the door, he spotted Silverman standing nearby. The GOP Chairman walked up to him and said “and I will be filing a bar complaint on your comments, sir.”