By Richard Sullins |

Early voting for the 2022 elections begins Oct. 20, and in preparation for what is expected to be a high volume of voters, the Lee County Board of Elections is taking additional steps to ensure that both voters and the processes they follow will provide the highest levels of protections available to them to make this election safe.

The Elections Board met on Oct. 11 to select an attorney who would be available for short-notice consultations through the time that the polls close at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 8. The county’s Board of Commissioners has approved an expenditure of up to $20,000 for the retention of an attorney specializing in elections law. 

Commissioners said they would be willing to consider further allocations of funding if circumstances require it.

Elections Board Chair Susan Feindel, Director Jane Rae Fawcett, and County Attorney Whitney Parrish interviewed three firms that could potentially provide the level of services the board might need in applying North Carolina election laws and administrative rules that relate to specific circumstances that could arise during the elections process.

The firm chosen by the Elections Board — Poyner Spruill of Raleigh — has broad experience in dealing with North Carolina election law. Caroline Mackey of the firm, who will take the lead on Lee County’s behalf in the 2022 election, provided advice one year ago to County Commissioners as they navigated the politically charged waters of redrawing electoral districts.

Another partner at Poyner Spruill, Bob Hagemann, will also be available to help as needed. Hagemann also serves as county attorney for Chatham County and will be Mackey’s backup if election disputes arise. The Elections Board will pay a flat fee of $375 per hour for any consultations and no retainer fee will be charged.

Feindel said the firm’s experience in election matters and its willingness to provide consultation on an as-needed basis without the need for a retainer arrangement provides the best form of representation the county can get.

“In the best-case scenario, we won’t need them at all, and they won’t have to charge us a dime,” she said. “But if we do need them, they are the best there is to represent our interests.”

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst

Fawcett will be meeting on Monday with local law enforcement to discuss how to address issues that could potentially arise with the election. Although Republican Sheriff Brian Estes is on the ballot for election to a full four-year term, he has pledged his office will be fair and impartial in any services they might be asked to provide. 

Fawcett will also meet later in the day with election judges to ensure clarity with the process for handling any issues that might arise.

On the same day that the Elections Board met, the State Board of Elections issued a detailed 12-page ‘numbered memo’ that goes into detail about how order is to be maintained at the polls so that “all voters can have a safe experience, free from unlawful interference.”

The guidance goes into detail about the means by which poll workers must balance the rights of every voter to enter the voting place freely and without harassment with the First Amendment guarantees of free speech that have to be granted to others who are legally participating in electioneering activities in designated areas. 

The memorandum sets forth the role of chief judges at each precinct. State law says it’s the judge’s responsibility to ensure voters have unimpeded access into both the buffer zone and the voting enclosure, and that they must act as needed to maintain order and prevent violence at the voting place.

Board member Jon Silverman spoke for the other four members when he said “our election judges have a right and a duty to maintain order in a broad sense at the polling place. But they do not have a duty to acquiesce to the demands of any person or mob just because there is a demand.”

Fawcett told the board that “even if someone is causing a problem, we will see that they are allowed to vote before escorting them off the property.” But even so, the State Board of Elections will have a representative stationed on duty within the county on election day in the event that something comes up that requires onsite guidance.

Public records requests continue

Commissioners also provided funding for an additional staff member at the Elections Board office to handle the growing number of public records requests that have been received during the year. This position will also provide backup support to the Elections Technician staff member that is already on staff.

As The Rant reported last month, the bulk of these requests are coming from outside the county and appear to be intended solely to occupy the staff’s attention at a time when their focus should be on running an election that voters can have confidence in.

My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, known for promoting baseless theories of election fraud, held an online event in late August that urged participants to request cast vote records, or ‘CVRs,’ from local election boards. Almost immediately, counties across the country saw a barrage of requests for those records and for forms of documentation. 

Lee County’s Board of Elections Office received one such request almost immediately after Lindell’s event. On August 30, local Republican Party Chairman Jim Womack requested CVRs, not from the May primary, but from the 2020 general election where former President Donald Trump continues to promote unsupported conspiracy theories that the election was stolen from him.

Womack asked for “every ballot, its sequential ID, its timestamp, its method of voting…the specific votes contained for all races, and the batch ID and tabulator ID for each file or report created in Lee County.” The State Board of Elections website shows that there were 29,008 individual ballots cast in Lee County during the 2020 election for President of the United States.

The sheer volume of those individual records would have been a heavy lift even under normal circumstances, and much more so during a federal election. But Fawcett said  North Carolina’s Public Records Law prohibits the release of these types of materials and so Womack’s request was denied.

Fawcett told commissioners at their meeting on October 3 that “we have an obligation to fulfill these requests as the law permits, but it should not impede election preparation,” and that among the requests is one that contains “a notice of prospective litigation and demands for records retention” that goes beyond the time required by the state for preserving these types of records.

The Elections Board asked the commissioners for $50,000 to cover attorneys’ fees and County Manager Dr. John Crumpton recommended an allocation in that same amount. However, the commissioners funded the position at $20,000 initially and told the Elections Board that it could come back with an additional request if more is needed. Salary for the Public Records Technician position will be provided at a level comparable to other professionals in the office.