By Richard Sullins |

As elections offices across the country are being flooded with so many public records requests that many don’t have time to carry out their primary functions, a suggestion made by the chairman of Lee County’s Board of Commissioners last week was viewed as another attempt to distract at the county’s election operations.

Near the close of their meeting on September 14, Lee County Elections Director Jane Rae Fawcett read to the Board of Elections an email received the previous week from Republican Kirk Smith that suggested the Elections Board’s motto on its webpage should be changed.

The motto (seen here) is “Ensuring Integrity for Local Democracy” and has been an unchallenged part of the office’s operations for at least 20 years.

Smith’s contention is that the United States is not a true democracy but rather a republic, and his email suggested the motto should reflect that.

Smith said in his email that the motto implying that the American system of government is democratic “causes this former Civics and U.S. History teacher extreme consternation” and the possibility that a democracy could devolve into anarchy is “the reason the Founders inserted in the First Amendment, the right to peaceably assemble, with an emphasis on ‘peaceably.'”

Smith is technically correct. The Founding Fathers saw a direct democracy, where decisions about the rule of law were made during meetings of all free, land-owning adult males, as a road that could lead to anarchy and disruption. So instead, they created a new system better described as not just a “republic,” but a “constitutional federal republic.”

That approach, based on the principles of an indirect democracy, is one where educated white men were first allowed to vote for their representatives in government. This same system has been expanded a number of times over the years to now include all men and women, and people of every color and creed, who are at least 18 years old.

A federal system of government is one in which the states and local units have their own specific powers to make laws and decisions about matters within their jurisdiction as defined in their constitutions or charters.

Smith also took issue with the “Ensuring Integrity” portion of the motto, repeating recent Republican talking points in saying “as soon as we can ensure voters are who they say they are, i.e., picture I.D. when one votes, and that we purge the voting roles (sic) of those who have moved or died, as well as verify signatures on Absentee Ballots, then we can ENSURE INTEGRITY.”

The five members of the Board of Elections – three Democrats and two Republicans – were united in their opinion that Smith’s suggestion, and its timing, was nothing more than a further attempt to distract them in the run-up to the 2022 election.

Republican member Harry Stryffeler agreed that Smith’s point was technically correct and felt a statement about the continuous pursuit of integrity should be kept if the board decided to look at it in the future. But he also said this is not the time to be “engaging in the frivolity of semantics” in the run-up to an election.

Republican Shannon Gurwitch said Smith’s email is an example of “just one thing after another to annoy this board and keep our attention from where it should be.” Democrat Jon Silverman’s motion to table the issue indefinitely passed unanimously.

Conduct violations at polls will be handled swiftly

During the May primary and June municipal election, the Board of Elections received 15 reports of conduct violations in Sanford and Lee County.

Those reports, some of which concerned in-person voting disruptions by partisan poll watchers, were also reported by other counties across the state, leading to the proposal of stricter rules from the State Board of Elections. However, the state’s Rules Review Commission – a 10-member panel appointed by the Republican-controlled state legislature – disallowed two of those proposed rule changes at the end of August. They would have more clearly defined the code of conduct for election poll observers.

The SBOE chose not to contest the ruling which came just eight weeks before the election but will instead offer guidance to county boards of elections and volunteer poll workers to make sure they have a clear understanding of their authority.

Fawcett said Lee County elections judges have asked for that same kind of information in order to determine how best to maintain order at the polls and deal with attempts that might be made to disrupt the process, enter restricted areas, or harass or intimidate voters.

Lee County Elections Board Chair Susan Feindel, a Democrat, recommended judges be reminded at their last meeting before the election on October 17 that “the elections statute and the administrative code puts the chief judge in charge at the polling site. We need to empower our chief judges to run their precincts subject to whatever guidelines or directives we may receive from the state.”

To provide for enhanced security at the ballot box, the board authorized the hiring of three additional “roving” poll watchers who would rotate at the two early voting sites and at each of the precincts on Election Day.

It also approved the hiring of an election security coordinator to be a liaison between chief judges and county law enforcement in providing support in making determinations of whether an incident at the polls can be handled administratively or instead rises to the level of a 911 situation.

Lastly, while sheriff’s deputies will not be present to prevent disruptions and intimidation at polling places, they will be on a heightened state of awareness while the polls are open and available to respond to any calls for assistance they may receive.