Things were crazy for Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt on Friday, August 5, thanks to a recent US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that overturned North Carolina’s voter ID law as well as a NC State Board of Elections decision that gave the county a Friday, August 19 deadline for establishing early voting times and sites.
All that meant Collicutt needed to change lots of things on the fly for the upcoming election. On that Friday, he was scheduling an emergency Board of Elections meeting, speaking with staff and state elections officials and fielding questions from reporters.
Oh, and did we mention he was doing that while in a car on the way to the hospital as his wife was in labor with their third child – a bouncing baby boy it turns out. Collicutt said he remembers being in the car on the phone with a reporter while his wife was having labor pains.
“She did pretty well about muffling her contractions,” Collicutt said.
After that car ride on Friday, Guilford County’s elections director might have thought things couldn’t get any crazier. However, on Monday, August 8, they did.
On that day, the Guilford County Board of Elections held a private meeting in public – that is, board members deliberated among themselves in front of a vocal, angry, standing-room-only crowd to determine Guilford County’s early voting times and locations for the November election.
The reason the “public” meeting turned into a private conference of election officials is that, right after it began, no one could hear the board members because the crowd – which filled both the meeting room and the balcony – were shouting, chanting and singing throughout. That forced elections board members to conduct their business by huddling together at the dais so they could converse despite the pandemonium in the large second-floor meeting room of the Old Guilford County Court House in downtown Greensboro.
In the end, most of the crowd got most of what they wanted for the upcoming election: a day of Sunday voting, an increase in the number of early voting days and sites over those in 2012, and the preservation of several sites where a large percentage of blacks and college students vote early. The board did not, as was feared by many, eliminate early voting sites at NC Agricultural and Technical (A&T) State University, Barber Park and or at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG). The crowd was clearly concerned some of those sites might be taken off the list after the Board of Elections entertained that possibility at a prior meeting on Thursday, August 4.
At the August 8 meeting, Guilford County Board of Elections members Don Wendelken, Jim Kimel and Chairman Kathryn Lindley, along with Collicutt, were the center of attention for the television crews, print reporters, photographers and spectators. Before the meeting, the crowd – full of area Democratic leaders and other vocal citizens – expressed their concerns that the Republican board might limit early voting hours and sites to fewer than what was provided in 2012.
A call for support in opposition to that possibility was posted on Facebook, distributed on other social media sites and sent out via email, and that, along with word of mouth, helped draw a large crowd to the Monday afternoon meeting. It’s not known if the imposing audience had an effect on the board’s decision or if some board members intended to reduce the sites and locations going into the meeting, but if the board had gone against the crowd’s wishes, things no doubt would have gotten even more heated in the old courthouse.
The Board of Elections meeting was called as an emergency meeting because on Thursday, August 5 – about 30 minutes after the Guilford County Board of Elections adjourned its first meeting on the topic, the NC State Board of Elections gave the Guilford County Board of Elections the August 19 deadline for establishing the early voting dates and sites. Given the conflicting schedules of board members and a desire among election officials for all three members to be present, the meeting had to be scheduled quickly.
Collicutt has been working in Guilford County elections since 2002 and he said he’s never seen an elections meeting in the county remotely like the one on August 8.
The county’s three-member election board usually meets in a cramped election office workroom where the board will occasionally get a spectator or two. The August 8 meeting was initially moved to the Blue Room – a larger first-floor meeting room in the old courthouse. Collicutt said that, about an hour before the meeting, he realized the crowd would be much larger than anticipated, so it was moved to the spacious county commissioners’ meeting room on the second floor.
At the start of the August 8 meeting, some of the elections board members spoke briefly before things collapsed into total chaos. Lindley and Wendelken, the board’s two Republicans, were booed when they attempted to speak, while Kimel, the board’s sole Democrat, saw his comments – favoring a wide range of early voting options – greeted with cheers and applause.
About five minutes into the meeting, there was a complete breakdown of order. Audience members shouted out comments and questions such as, “What about the locations?” and “Stop voter suppression!”
Guilford County Security Director Jeff Fowler stood prominently at the front of the room, at times interposing himself between the raucous crowd and the board members at the dais. His officers moved around the room to stand near the hottest spots in an attempt to bring order – but the outbursts were too widespread.
“Keep it down folks,” Fowler told the crowd before it became clear there was no hope of maintaining order.
When Lindley tried to read one option aloud, an audience member shouted out, “That’s too confusing!” A moment later others were shouting, “We have a right to vote!” and “Let the public speak!” Another barked, “Have a public comment period!” which started a loud continuous chant: “Public comment! Public comment!”
The meeting soon resembled something from the civil rights movement decades ago, including the crowd’s rousing rendition of “We Shall Not Be Moved,” while the board members and elections staff tried to deliberate.
Collicutt said after the meeting that that conversations in that discussion weren’t so much as “horse trading” as it was a technical discussion to work through the particulars of which early voting sites and days could be used. He said it ended up being a unanimous decision by the board.
The early voting schedule must still be approved by the NC State Board of Elections but, since it was a unanimous vote, that part of the process is expected to be routine. If the decision hadn’t been unanimous, it’s likely it would have been scrutinized by the state board and no county elections officials wanted that at a time when it’s already late in the year for elections staff to be working out these types of things. So there was a desire among the board and staff for a unanimous vote – which they got.
The crowd seemed pleased with the outcome. Guilford County is holding early voting from Thursday, Oct. 20 to Saturday, Nov. 5. Early voting starts in the old courthouse and on Thursday, Oct. 27, an additional 24 early voting sites open. The list of early voting sites and locations are on the board’s website at www.myguilford.com/elections. The fairly extensive early voting schedule seemed to appease many at the courthouse but it didn’t stop the boos for Lindley.
“We were trying to make that known during the course of the meeting, but the noise in room – ” she attempted to explain to the crowd before she was drowned out by jeers.
While many were pleased, Democratic Guilford County Commissioner Carolyn Coleman was there and said she didn’t like the fact that early voting in the first week is limited to the Old Guilford County Courthouse.
“I am so disappointed by the decision,” she said.
She said it is too few days and pointed out that first part of the early voting is limited to the old courthouse.
“I think it should be early voting across the county so everybody can conveniently cast their vote,” Coleman said. “I was really disappointed with this board. This is not Mississippi, this is not Alabama – this is Greensboro, North Carolina.”
Democratic Commissioner Ray Trapp said he was largely pleased with the outcome.
“I’m for anything that increases democracy – anything,” Trapp said. “You could vote at home if it were up to me.”
Asked whether he felt the intense crowd made a difference in the outcome, he said, “I hope so. I don’t think they were planning to do that. This is democracy in action; this is what democracy looks like.”
He also said Fowler had his hands full at the meeting.
“He absolutely earned it today,” Trapp said of Fowler’s salary.
Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen, also a Democrat, said he thinks the audience’s display was a culmination of a lot of frustration among state citizens that has been accruing for some time regarding multiple matters that haven’t sat well with liberals.
“I think people are really, really angry,” Thigpen said.
He also said he’d spoken with Lindley after hearing talk that the board might reduce the number of early voting sites and days, and he had encouraged Lindley not to back that plan. Thigpen later posted on his Facebook page that he thought the board’s decision was fair.