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By Richard Sullins | [email protected]
Meeting in a rare emergency session on Sunday afternoon, the Lee County Board of Elections heard allegations that members of the county’s Republican party tracked and harassed voters inside the buffer zone protection surrounding the entry of early voting in the 2022 municipal elections in Sanford, as well as complaints from the Republican side that the zone restricting where campaigning can take place violates state law.
Early voting for a new mayor and Sanford City Council members is now open at the Board of Elections office through Saturday, July 23, with Election Day taking place the following Tuesday, July 26.
A map provided by the Board of Elections shows the area where election campaigning is restricted (labeled “EL 5 spaces”). The other areas in the diagram are “HP”, designating handicapped parking, and “CS” for curbside voting. The Electoral Commission has ruled that any election campaign taking place outside the “EL” zone is a violation of the rules for this election, as was also the case for the May 17 primary election.
Importantly, none of the parties objected to the arrangement shown on the map for the primary, and expressed no concerns when the Board of Elections voted in June to use the same setup as they finalized plans for Sanford’s municipal elections.
At issue is a claim by Democrat Linda Rhodes, a candidate for a Sanford City Council seat, that Republican candidate for Ward 1 Council Blaine Sutton and Lee County GOP Chairman Jim Womack were campaigning and approaching voters inside the buffer zone on Friday. which had been established by the Board of Elections.
Rhodes said the practice violates rules created by the council under the authority granted to its members under state law. Last Friday afternoon, when Sutton and Womack continued to campaign inside the buffer zone, Chief Elections Judge James French and Chief Electoral Officer Jane Rae Fawcett came out of the building to ask each party to limit its electoral activities within the established zone.
Rhodes said five minutes later, Sutton and Womack were outside the restricted area and inside the buffer zone again, approaching voters as they exited their automobiles.
The Elections Commission reiterated on Sunday that as Chief Justice, French has the authority to call upon whatever resources he deems necessary to ensure that voters are not harassed or intimidated as they enter the voting area, up to and including the use of local law enforcement.
Womack used his public comment time to counterclaim that the area where the council limited campaigning violates state law. Section 163.166.4 of the North Carolina General Statutes states that “In determining the dimensions of this buffer zone for each polling place, the County Board of Elections shall, so far as practicable, set the limit at 50 feet from the entrance door of the polling station. , measured when this door is closed, but in no case shall he set the limit at more than 50 feet or less than 25 feet.
Womack said he measured the distance from the election area to the entrance to the building’s voting entrance at 81 feet.
“We don’t dispute the power of the council to provide such an area, but we certainly dispute this council’s attempt to enforce this electoral area as exclusive to campaigning,” he said.
Womack called the council’s placement of election space a violation of Republican candidates’ free speech rights. He also said the council’s actions were “arbitrary and capricious”.
Council chair Susan Feindel said the council’s choice of location was not arbitrary. Council members said they had serious concerns that voters would be approached by candidates or party agents as vehicles drove in and out of the parking lot and Feindel said the council had the power, under of the state election law, to adapt according to the installation used to vote. .
Council member Harry Stryffeler questioned whether the council actually had such authority, and Feindel replied that it did because it created a safety issue for voters and officers, citing Article 163.48 of the General Statutes.
Council vice-chairman Jon Silverman said the council’s overall responsibility is to ensure that citizens who wish to vote and are legally entitled to vote have the opportunity to vote without fear of harassment, intimidation or obstruction.
Silverman speculated on the motivation behind Womack’s claim saying “it’s a shame we have certain elements in this county, and one of them is Jim Womack who came to us. He is a problem for this community. Not his party, but he is.
“I watched him. He intimidated people and obstructed people. I’ve seen him do that and that’s a problem,” Silverman continued. “And the reason is that the legislator, in his infinite wisdom, because Jim Womack is not the first person who has wanted to interfere and intimidate people who want to vote. He didn’t invent anything. It is simply part of our history.
Silverman said Section 163.48 gives local election commissions the right and authority to configure polling sites by providing them with a tool to maintain order and enforce the peace during elections, within given parameters.
“I’m at peace with the law and with God that what we’ve done is right, in accordance with the laws of this state, and it’s the best thing this council can do,” he said.
The council has decided to leave the current voting setup as it is in municipal elections, but it will also encourage its chief justices to apply the law on a case-by-case basis so that equal protection is offered to all voters.
Womack then posted a video on the Lee GOP Facebook page that he recorded of the meeting. It was accompanied by a message that said, in part, that the council’s action “is a clear violation of our candidates’ constitutional rights” and that “we will not be deterred.” If necessary, we will see them in court.
The meeting broke down and people started to leave the room. Feindel implored Womack to “be reasonable, Jim”, and he replied with “in our minds, we are very reasonable”.
“But not with us,” Feindel replied.
As Womack began to walk through the door, he spotted Silverman standing nearby. The GOP chairman walked up to him and said “and I will file a lawsuit on your comments, sir.”