It’s good to be the king but it’s not so good to be an elections director in the State of North Carolina in 2018. Elections are complicated enough as it is most years, however, this time around – especially in Guilford County – the election season has had wrinkles galore.
If this had been a normal election year, Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt would have sent out the first wave of ballots – absentee ballots for military personnel and overseas voters – by Friday, Sept. 7. However, this year those ballots went out a week after that “deadline” – and one week closer to the Sept. 22 federal deadline for getting those ballots out.
It wasn’t Collicutt’s fault; the delay was caused by one of many lawsuits filed by Democrats. On Wednesday, August 29, the North Carolina Supreme Court ordered the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement to halt the preparation of election ballots across the state after a court filing by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged four constitutional amendments that will appear on the November ballot.
The day before that – Tuesday, August 28 – Collicutt had Summerfield town councilmembers in his office asking about two last minute ballot initiatives for Summerfield voters. There has been a major dispute in Summerfield over whether those items should appear on the November ballot, and Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham and Town Councilmember Reece Walker were, at different times that afternoon, in Collicutt’s office inquiring about the process. In the end, Summerfield got the items on the 2018 November ballot – but only because the NAACP lawsuit extended the deadline for elections offices to prepare the ballot.
The months prior to September were no less hectic for election officials. The state’s newly formed Constitution Party and three of its candidates won a victory in federal court that meant those candidates will appear on the November ballot despite a move by the General Assembly that would have kept their names off the November ballot.
Throw in recent federal court challenges to district lines in the state and it’s enough to give elections officials in North Carolina a headache if not a heart attack.
Earlier this year, Guilford County Board of Elections members and elections staff – who had never seen a residency challenge before – had to address a slate of voter and candidate residency challenges.
Also, at the start of 2018, there was no state elections board in place and nearly one-quarter of the state’s county elections boards were on the verge of not being able to conduct business at all since they were down to two members on a four-member board and couldn’t legally conduct business without a quorum. The lack of a state board prevented some counties from purchasing needed new voting machines for the 2018 election.
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne, who’s been working with Collicutt on the legal issues that have come up recently, said this week that it’s been a rare year for elections. He said that, according to at least one elections expert he’d read, “It was the most complicated election season in North Carolina.”
Payne said the matters have kept the county’s elections office on hold at times,
“You can’t draft a ballot if you don’t know everything that’s going to be on it,” Payne said.
The ballots have to be carefully proofread before being sent out because a simple typo on a ballot could be disastrous. Preparing ballots isn’t something anyone wants to do at the last minute.
Payne said the jobs of elections offices are complicated by the fact that there are different ballots for different areas. For instance, Summerfield voters will have a different ballot than voters in Greensboro.
Collicutt said it’s certainly not preferable to have delays at the last minute.
“The major one was the lawsuit over the amendments,” Collicutt said, “We didn’t know if the amendments would be on or off or changed.”
For a while it looked like the redistricting battle in federal court might cause other delays.
“Ultimately there was nothing affected,” he said of that legal battle and its effect on the November ballot.
Collicutt began working as an elections official in 2002 and became the Guilford County elections director in 2015. He said that he has seen issues come up but 2018 is unique.
“Last year there was talk about redistricting and, in 2016, we’d planned for photo ID, but it didn’t happen,” he said, adding that those weren’t “at the eleventh hour.”
Bob Joyce, a legal scholar with the North Carolina School of Government in Chapel Hill, recently wrote on the legal blog called “Coates’ Canons” about the way North Carolina elections are now intimately tied to court decisions.
“Over the last seven years, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed court rulings that all three 2011 plans – state House, state Senate, and U.S. House – included unlawful racial gerrymanders and that the 2017 redraw of the state plans continued the unlawful racial gerrymander. A federal court found that the 2016 redraw of Congressional districts amounted to an unlawful partisan gerrymander. We now operate with court-drawn substitutes for the state plans, and the shadow of ongoing litigation hangs over all three plans.”