Election Day raid in Montgomery County raises voter suppression questions

ablythe@newsobserver.comNovember 15, 2013 

In Mount Gilead, a Uwharrie Mountains town with a population of about 1,200, local elections can be fiercely fought and narrowly won.

In 2011, the race for mayor ended in a 178-176 vote, a two-vote margin that led to a yearlong political dispute.

Four voters were denied ballots that year after their residencies were challenged, and the State Board of Elections ended up throwing out the results and ordering a new election after a legal challenge was filed.

Patty Almond, the mayor who won in 2012, was on the ballot again Nov. 5. Her loss, though, by about 90 votes to Earl Poplin, the mayor who preceded her, has again raised questions.

Several hours before the polls opened on Election Day in Montgomery County, about 100 law enforcement officers from six agencies began an alcohol and drug raid sting that resulted in 59 arrests.

Some residents have described the raid as a blatant attempt to suppress votes in the African-American community since all arrested were black.

Raid organizers have cast aside such accusations, saying the local elections in Mount Gilead, and other Montgomery towns, were not even on their radar when officers fanned out with search warrants.

“Initially, N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement’s primary interest was at an ABC-permitted establishment that had received numerous complaints of illegal activity at or in the vicinity of the nightclub,” Patty McQuillan, a spokeswoman of the N.C. Department of Public Safety, said in a statement. “ALE’s investigation expanded when local authorities asked for their assistance to investigate other illegal drug and alcohol activity in Montgomery County.”

McQuillan said “operations like this one are contingent on the availability of law enforcement, which is not an easy task to coordinate.”

That the date fell on Election Day “was never taken into consideration or discussed at the planning meeting,” she added.

Among the considerations at the planning meeting, according to McQuillan, were trying to limit travel on Sunday for out-of-town agents while still leaving enough time before the following weekend for the necessary court proceedings.

Officials with the state Alcohol Law Enforcement agency said the Montgomery County sheriff decided when the raid would occur, and the sheriff said the state law enforcement officers set the schedule.

“Nobody had any idea it was Election Day,” said Dempsey Owens, the Montgomery County sheriff since December 2010.

Mount Gilead residents say no matter which organization set the timetable, the drug bust was an exercise in bad timing that once again left the small town’s election results ambiguous.

Almond, a white candidate who had a base of support among African-American voters, lost by a larger margin than the number of people arrested. But those who question the timing of the raid say family members of those accused of the 306 drug, alcohol and weapons violations might have been deterred from voting by lingering around the jail waiting to provide bail.

Those detained, according to critics of the raid, were not released on bond until after the polls closed.

“Some of the people picked up might have voted for Patty Almond – that’s how she looked at it,” said George Knight, a 73-year-old Montgomery County retiree who describes himself as a facilitator who tries to bridge the political divide in Mount Gilead. “In my opinion, I believe she would have lost the election anyhow, but there should not have to be this question.”

Knight, an African-American who grew up in Mount Gilead, said he did not think the raid was timed to suppress votes.

But David Allsbrook, a 49-year-old black resident, said he is more suspicious.

“Of course, I think it was a form of voter suppression,” Allsbrook said. “A bunch of mess has been going on here for the past two and a half years.”

In 2011, the complaints filed by the four black voters who had been denied ballots went before the State Board of Elections. That resulted in the unusual situation where Poplin, the mayor before Almond, remained in office almost a year after his term ended even though he had not sought re-election.

“I’m not crying over spilled milk,” Allsbrook said. “Whether or not Patty Almond would have won, I don’t know. It’s not a point about who would have won, but it’s a point about the tactics used.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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