Commentary

Christensen: Professionalism intact at State Board of Elections

rchristensen@newsobserver.comSeptember 14, 2013 

It is usually not a good sign when Rachel Maddow, the liberal MSNBC TV host, broadcasts from your town, but that is what she did recently from Elizabeth City.

Maddow was in Elizabeth City because the Pasquotank County Board of Elections had put itself on the national political map – no easy task – by voting to bar Elizabeth State University student Montravias King from running for City Council because he didn’t meet the residency requirement because he lived in a dorm. It was the same principle used to determine eligibility to vote, and there were suggestions that there might be an effort to challenge the voting of students in the next election all across the state.

But the State Board of Elections this month reversed the decision by the Pasquotank board. North Carolina case law and the U.S. Supreme Court have upheld the right of students to use their dorm addresses for voting and for running for office.

It was one of several signs that at least at the top level, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s appointees are exerting a steadying influence on the state’s political machinery.

Change of party

McCrory’s election meant that for the first time in 20 years, Republicans would take control not only of the State Board of Elections but of all 100 county boards of elections.

In selecting an elections chairman, McCrory chose someone both experienced and with conservative credentials. Josh Howard, 39, a Raleigh attorney, was a federal prosecutor in Eastern North Carolina, heading the white-collar crimes section. He also served as junior counsel in the Independent Counsel’s Office in Washington during the investigations of President Bill Clinton.

As a Justice Department official, Howard assisted in the confirmations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court. He stood next to President George W. Bush in the White House as the president congratulated Roberts on his confirmation as chief justice. Pretty high cotton.

He is the son of Judge Malcolm Howard, who was nominated to the bench by President Ronald Reagan.

Howard has said he prefers that decisions be made by local election boards. But he was the crucial vote in overturning the Pasquotank decision.

He couched it in conservative terms, arguing that if college students could be prevented from running for office then so could military personnel, and that just wouldn’t do.

Watauga board scolded

At a statewide meeting of county elections officials in Cary, he encouraged them to do a better job working together after a raucous meeting of the Watauga County Board of Elections.

“You guys have got to start getting along, all right?” Howard said. “We saw this on YouTube, and this is not how elections in North Carolina need to be run. There are episodes between y’all that are not courteous; they are not professional. I have heard profanity in your meetings.”

The Watauga board drew national attention when it voted to close the polling site on the Appalachian State University campus. It also combined three voting sites in Boone into one that was a mile from campus, with no sidewalks and 35 parking spaces for 9,300 voters.

The state elections board did not act. But the Watauga board reversed its decision after Kim Strach, the elections board director, intervened and suggested one site would not work.

“They could not combine the precincts without my approval,” Strach told The Winston-Salem Journal. “I had concerns about the plan, ... and I did express my concerns.”

Strach was a widely respected investigator on the staff of the state elections board for 13 years when she was elevated to the position of elections director by the Republican majority.

Challenges ahead

All of this suggests a level of professionalism that will be sorely tested as the new voter laws – which require photo IDs and cut a week from early voting – are put into effect.

There are other challenges, as well. Despite criticism from Republicans that they pulled their punches, the Democratic elections board run by Larry Leake and Gary Bartlett investigated and damaged a lot of Democrats, including former Gov. Mike Easley, former House Speaker Jim Black, former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and former state Rep. Thomas Wright, among others.

Whether the new Republican board will be equally as willing to investigate Republicans may be tested in the years ahead.

But Howard & Co. seem determined to minimize the YouTube moments and to keep Rachel Maddow broadcasting from New York.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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