Guilford County Board of Elections Member Don Wendelken has resigned from that board and, by doing so, effectively put the county’s board completely out of business.
Wendelken’s resignation – combined with a new state law that just went into effect – means that Guilford County’s election board no longer has enough members to meet and conduct business legally, and the board will not get any new members until North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, the state legislature and the North Carolina Supreme Court work out their state election board issues.
Members of the Guilford County Board of Elections are appointed by the state elections board – now called the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement. Until that state board is appointed, there is no one who can appoint new members to the Guilford County Board of Elections – or to any other county elections boards in North Carolina for that matter.
The remaining members of the Guilford County elections board are Jim Kimel, a Democrat, and Kathryn Lindley, the board’s Republican chair.
In recent legislation, the North Carolina General Assembly created a newly structured elections board, one that was combined with a state ethics board, but Cooper has argued that that move was unconstitutional.
The courts upheld the new elections and ethics board, and now Cooper – and everyone else – is waiting on a decision on the matter from the state Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the governor hasn’t appointed any members to the new elections and ethics board that the legislature created.
Wendelken announced his decision to resign at the Tuesday, July 18 Board of Elections meeting and the implications of that decision were felt immediately by surprised election officials.
Wendelken said he made up his mind to step down shortly before the meeting.
“I was driving in to the meeting and I just decided,” Wendelken said.
Under the former state law, before the new law took effect on July 18, the elections boards in each of the state’s 100 counties consisted of three members. Two members could conduct a board’s business because those two constituted a quorum before July 18. However, under the new law, all county elections boards in the state are four-member boards.
Every other year in July, newly appointed elections board members take seats on county boards across the state; however, this year everything is at a standstill as the court battle wages at the state level. Under the new law now in effect, the Guilford County Board of Elections has four positions and two of those are vacant and will not be filled until the state works through its issues.
About a half dozen other counties across North Carolina are in the same situation, and that number will only grow as long as there is no state elections board in place to appoint members of county boards.
Wendelken surprised county election officials when, at the end of the otherwise routine meeting, he announced he was leaving after four years on the board.
At the meeting, Wendelken didn’t say why he was stepping down. When asked about his decision later, the Republican board member did hint that this move might help force the new Democratic governor’s hand.
“I just feel like it’s time to move on,” he said at first. However, then Wendelken added, “But if Cooper doesn’t want to make appointments – well, I just feel like he’s going to be forced to make appointments sooner or later.”
Wendelken also said that, if board members in other counties resign, that might create a situation where it simply isn’t possible to hold elections across the state.
Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said Wendelken’s resignation certainly does place his Guilford County elections office in an interesting position.
“The state board of elections’ general counsel said their interpretation of the statute is that the current board carries over,” Collicutt said. “However, as of today, there is no one to appoint a new member or [appoint] the whole board. So, technically what we have is a four-member board with two vacancies. Let’s say that Don had not resigned – then they would need three to pass anything. Don resigning makes it so this board cannot meet with a quorum.”
Collicutt said that, for the immediate future, at least, his office has sufficient board guidance and approval already in place to proceed with normal election steps as the 2017 municipal elections fast approach.
Collicutt said he was glad that, before Wendelken resigned, the Guilford County Board of Elections took care of a lot of business needed for the coming weeks.
“We’re not alone now with having two members,” Collicutt said. “There are other counties in this state with two members. We did get some unanimous votes on some things we needed to get moving toward the municipal elections, so I’m not hamstrung or anything like that at this time.”
Collicutt said Kimel and Lindley could get together and listen to elections staff, but the two couldn’t take any action.
Wendelken said he’ll greatly miss working with his fellow board members and with the election board staff.
“These guys are great,” he said. “I mean superb.”
He said Guilford County’s elections operations were top-notch, as good as any in the state, and he added that Collicutt was doing a great job.
“He is always a man of his word – he does what he says and he wants everything to be 100 percent right,” Wendelken said. “And, if something doesn’t go right, he fixes it.”
Collicutt also had some kind words for Wendelken as well as for the two remaining board members.
“We’ve gotten along well,” Charlie said. “We’ve been very happy with the board that we’ve had.”
Wendelken, a co-owner of a hotel furnishings business, has run for local office several times, including an unsuccessful run in 2012 for a seat on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
Lindley said she wished Wendelken was not stepping down and she said he’d been a calming influence for the county’s election board.
“He was the kind of neutral person on the board,” she said. “He kept the two of us moderated.”
Lindley said that, before the meeting, Wendelken told her he wanted a moment at the end to speak, and she said, when she heard that request, she suspected he might resign.
“I did not know, but when I heard he wanted to speak before the end of the meeting, I thought: I’m not going to let him speak.”
When the July 18 meeting was wrapping up and Wendelken finally spoke his piece, it was the thing Lindley didn’t want to hear.
“It’s been a pleasure working with everybody, but I’m resigning after the meeting,” Wendelken told the board members in the small election’s conference room on the first floor of the Old Guilford County Court House.
“I enjoyed it deeply, learned a lot, and both sides have always been respectful,” Wendelken said. “It’s been fun and I’ll tell you what – it’s been a real valuable lesson understanding how both sides work, how government works, how protesters work and how people in polling places work.”
Lindley, who was suddenly the chair of a board that cannot meet, joked: “Your resignation is not accepted.
She added, “That means we can’t do any more business between now and when they do make new appointments.”
Wendelken said elections officials would still see him around even though he wouldn’t be on the board.
In the past, state governors have appointed a five-member North Carolina State Board of Elections, which has in turn appointed the county boards across the state – with each board having two members of the governor’s party and one member of the opposing party.
Now, the state board of elections has been combined with the state’s ethics board into an eight-member board with four Democrats and four Republicans. That new state board and ethics board was to have been appointed two months ago and then, last week, it would have appointed the new local elections boards; however, Cooper is fighting the Republican lawmakers’ change in court and it’s not clear when new state and county boards will be appointed.