The Guilford County Board of Elections has received challenges of residency for three candidates running in the 2018 election. However, there is no functioning county elections board to hear those challenges so the claims are in limbo for now. Since there is now a state elections board, that problem could be solved soon.
Two candidates in the North Carolina House of Representatives District 59 race – state Rep. Jon Hardister and Democratic candidate Steve Buccini – have had their residency challenged, as has Michael Garrett, the Democratic Senate District 27 candidate running against Republican District 27 state Sen. Trudy Wade in November.
Guilford County Democratic Party Chairman Nicole Quick filed the challenge against Hardister with the Guilford County elections board, while Ken Jacobs, a former Whitsett Town Council member who’s now the town administrator, filed the challenge against Buccini. Lee Haywood, Republican Party Chairman of the 6th District, filed the residency challenge against Garrett.
Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said he doesn’t recall ever seeing a challenge of this sort filed in Guilford County so it was surprising this year when his office received three.
The Guilford County elections board also has a pending residency challenge to sitting Summerfield Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck that it has been unable to hear. That hearing was originally set for Tuesday, March 20; however, it didn’t take place since the county’s board can’t meet or take action until it has at least one more member.
Haywood’s challenge states that Garrett does not own the house at 8003 Willow Glen Trail that he listed as his residence when he filed to run in February, but that he does own a house at 2605 W. Market St. in Greensboro, not located in District 27. The house on Willow Glen Trail is owned by Garrett’s mother, Guilford County Board of Education Member Darlene Garrett. Haywood’s challenge calls for election officials to investigate the matter fully.
Jacobs’ challenge to Buccini’s residency states that photographs, reports and other documents obtained by Jacobs demonstrate that Buccini does not reside at 7100 Gusenbury Road in Whitsett, the address Buccini used to file. The challenge states that an investigator kept an eye on the residence and consistently found no lights on inside and no vehicles outside.
Quick’s challenge to Hardister’s residency states that the address he listed as his residence – 6427 Bellcross Trail in Whitsett – was purchased by Hardister’s parents in October 2017. It also states that the latest tax record for Hardister is for a 107 Forestdale Dr. address in Greensboro which is not in the district.
State law requires that the Guilford County Board of Elections, within five business days of the date a candidate’s residency is challenged, set a hearing for that case; however, Guilford County – like 25 other counties in the state – has no functioning Board of Elections. The four-seat board has only two filled seats and, therefore, not enough members to have a quorum and hold a meeting.
In North Carolina, members of county elections boards are appointed by the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, which has been out of commission since June 2017. After an extended court battle between Gov. Roy Cooper and the North Carolina General Assembly over the structure of the state’s election and ethics board, on Friday, March 16, Cooper finally named eight new members to that board. However, it will be a while before the board begins naming new members to county boards. The eight members on the state board met on Wednesday, March 21 and agreed on two choices for a ninth member, who Cooper will name.
Until earlier this month, a special court order from the North Carolina Supreme Court allowed Guilford County and the 24 other two-member boards in the state to meet and make decisions with only those two members; however, a recent North Carolina Superior Court decision nullified that order.
State statutes say that a county board must present a written decision for the residency challenges within 20 business days of the challenge, but the county board has its hands tied.
Collicutt said he knew of a residency challenge of a sheriff’s candidate in Bertie County, which also only has two members on its election board. The elections director in that county sent the challenge to the state board of elections along with a notice that the Bertie County board couldn’t hear the case.
“The state board said the same thing – that we are unable to consider it,” Collicutt said.
At that time, the state board had no members. Election matters that would normally be decided by the state board of elections have been going to Wake County Superior Court, but now that a state elections board is in place, that board should begin hearing cases and settling disputes.
Election officials across the state are pleased that there’s now at least a light at the end of the tunnel, despite the fact that the legal battle over the nature of the state’s board of elections continues to rage on. While Cooper did appoint four Democrats and four Republicans to the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement formed by the state General Assembly, every indication is that he intends to continue to fight the new board’s structure in the courts.
The first order of business for the new state elections board was to meet to select two nominees for the ninth seat who weren’t affiliated with the Democratic or Republican parties, as is called for by the new law. Those two names have now been submitted to Cooper, who will choose one.
Then that board, which is facing a huge backlog of elections business that’s been piling up since last June, is expected to start naming new members to county elections boards so the 25 that are now out of commission can begin meeting again. Once the Guilford County board has at least three members, the board will be able to hear the residency challenges and take care of other business related to the May primary.
Collicutt said one interesting fact about residency challenges to candidates is that the burden of proof of residency is on the candidate. So, when the cases are heard by the county, the candidates will have to present proof that they live where they say they do and that they’ve lived there long enough to run in the race.
In the case of Rotruck and his seat on the Summerfield Town Council – the accuser, not Rotruck, has the burden of proof since it’s his voter eligibility – and by fiat his eligibility for service – that is being challenged. The three candidates now running, on the other hand, will have to present proof they live where they say.
Hardister said this week that he’ll have no trouble proving he lives in District 59 and qualifies to run in that district.
“For me, it’s easy to do,” Hardister said of demonstrating his residency.
“I’ve got a check to a moving company, utility bills and neighbors who will testify that I live there,” he said.
The question now is when and where he’ll get a chance to make that case.
The two members of the Guilford County Board of Elections are Jim Kimel, a Democrat, and Kathryn Lindley, the board’s Republican chair. Lindley said this week that it’s difficult for the two to be sitting on the sidelines while the county moves toward an election.
“It’s frustrating,” she said, adding that this is normally a busy time for county elections boards.
She said the board would ordinarily be finalizing poll locations, hearing challenges, approving the by-mail ballots, verifying actions of the elections office and doing other important work.
Lindley said its not clear when the Guilford County elections board will get new members.
“My understanding is that it’s going to take some time,” she said.
She added that the state board must be fully established first.
“Until that happens, they can’t do anything with local boards,” she said.
Lindley said she hopes state board members get to the business of naming new county board members soon.
“I would hope they would make that a priority,” she said.
She said Collicutt is notifying the officers of the state’s elections board that the county cannot hear the residency challenges.
Lindley also said it’s anyone’s guess how the new state board will act in regard to the current county board. She said one question is whether the state board will just fill vacancies on current boards or whether they will get rid of existing members such as herself.
“We might have four new members,” Lindley said of the Guilford County elections board.
Last week, the word out of the governor’s office was that Cooper and his administration “believe strongly” that the new elections board is unconstitutional and does not serve the interests of voters.
Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, said that, at both the county level and state level, there is important elections business for the 2018 election that needs to he handled. He wrote in an email that there are a number of things he expects the new state board will consider quickly. That to-do list includes: “Appointments of county board members so all county boards can conduct business; adoption of early voting plans for counties whose boards aren’t unanimous; hear candidate challenge appeals and requests for appointment of panels for multi-county candidate challenges; certify new elections equipment for use by the counties; consider/hear complaints regarding ethics, lobbying and campaign finance regulations; consider Green Party recognition.”
The Green Party has submitted documentation to become a recognized party in North Carolina under a new state law.
Lindley said she’s hopeful that new action at the state level will soon have all the state’s two-member elections boards in operation soon.
“It sounds like things are moving now,” she said.