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State Elections Board Weighs In On High-Profile Cases

Montravius King
Dave DeWitt

Richard Gilbert, who goes by Pete, is the chair of the Republican Party in Pasquotank County. Over the years, he’s ambled into the County Elections Board meetings in that coastal county and challenged the legitimacy of dozens of voters, many of them students from Elizabeth City State University.

His argument is almost always the same: that the college students who live in dorms there aren’t permanent residents.

So it wasn’t a surprise when he challenged the candidacy of Montravias King, a senior at the historically black university, who had filed to run for city council.

“My case is, that he doesn’t meet the bar for being a candidate in the ward that I live in,” Gilbert told the State Board of Elections.

Last month, Gilbert won his challenge against King at the county level. Now, he was on the big stage, making the same argument.

“The fact that he hasn’t provided evidence that he’s living where he says he’s living,” Gilbert said. “It’s his burden to provide the evidence, and so far he’s provided no evidence.”

King’s attorney countered that he had provided evidence, including a driver’s license and banking and employment records. 

Democrats and progressives across the state and across the country have made King’s case a high-profile event. They say it is part of a concerted, coordinated effort by Republicans to deny young people the chance to vote – or run for local office. Gilbert himself was quoted as saying he was going to take his “show on the road.”

That road led to Raleigh, and dead-ended into the State Board of Elections.

All three Republicans, including chair Josh Howard, voted in King’s favor. After the decision, the young candidate for City Council beamed.

“Justice has prevailed,” he said, surrounded by supporters, including NAACP President Rev. William Barber. “Justice has prevailed. I am not entirely surprised about the decision today. We knew we were on the right side of the law and the constitution the whole time.”

King did not stick around to watch the second half of the State Elections Board hearing. It also focused on college students and their access to the electoral process. Last month, the Watauga County Board of Elections earned its own measure of fame when a YouTube video of one of its meetings went viral.

Kathleen Campbell is the lone Democrat on the three-person Watauga Board of Elections. She got upset when her Republican colleagues proposed closing the one-stop voting site on Appalachian State University’s campus, and consolidating three precincts in Boone into one.

“My opinion is, they do not want, and it’s not just them, it’s a statewide obvious thing that’s going on, they do not want students to vote,” she told the State Board. “And they are trying keep the students from voting by making it inconvenient for them to vote.”

Campbell wouldn’t say it, but the “they” she is referring to is “Republicans.”

The State Board wasn’t buying this argument. After the Watauga Board indicated it would re-visit the consolidating issue, the State Board upheld the locals’ decision to eliminate the one-stop voting site on campus.

“We’re not going to mandate from Raleigh that you guys open up a second site a half mile away,” said Josh Howard, chair of the State Board of Elections.

While the Watauga and Pasquotank cases have drawn the most attention in the college-student-election drama, the Elections Board in Harnett County, south of Raleigh, quietly added a precinct on a college campus this past spring.

The unanimous vote to create precinct 32 in Buies Creek came without fanfare or much public comment. The polling site was placed on the campus of Campbell University, a Christian University with a reputation for conservatism.

“You have to have a place that has good parking, is free, and has the room,” said Bill Currin, a Republican and current chair of the Harnett County Board of Elections. “And the previous director contacted Campbell and they said maybe we can make this work.”

That place with plenty of parking and free access? It’s Campbell’s John W Pope Junior Convocation Center. And if that name sounds familiar, John Pope, Jr. is the late brother of Art Pope, the State Budget Director whose family foundation is a major donor to conservative think tanks like the John Locke Foundation and Civitas.

And while that may raise partisan conspiracy theories, it should be noted that the Harnett Board of Elections that came up with that idea in the Spring, discussed it, and passed it unanimously, was majority democrat.

“We, as a Board, always talked about free, fair, and open election,” said Currin, a high-school social studies teacher.

Across North Carolina, newly re-formed county boards of elections will meet regularly over the next several months to hash out decisions that will likely be contentious and highly partisan.

At the end of the State Board meeting yesterday, chair Josh Howard had some words of wisdom, and while he was addressing the three-person Elections Board in Watauga County, it could easily be advice for all of the county boards to take to heart.

“You guys gotta start getting along,” he said. “We saw this on Youtube and this is not how elections in North Carolina need to be run.”  

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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