Election official ousted for openly supporting Senate candidate Brannon

pgannon@ncinsider.comDecember 20, 2013 

— The State Board of Elections on Friday ousted a member of the Beaufort County Board of Elections after ruling that he violated state law by openly supporting Republican U.S. Senate candidate Greg Brannon at a local tea party meeting in October.

In doing so, the five-member, Republican-controlled state board made it clear that it wouldn’t take it lightly when county board members publicly practice partisan politics.

Bob Hall, executive director of the election reform group Democracy North Carolina, lauded the decision, saying he believed the state board members were taking seriously their responsibility to monitor the political activities of local board members, who are charged with overseeing elections.

“By their action, they’re sending a signal to the local board members that they need to obey the law, and the law is quite clear about not publicly endorsing or advocating for candidates,” Hall said.

Hall said it is important for local board members to remain independent and impartial in the public’s eye, as they may have to adjudicate an election protest involving a candidate. “And the public won’t believe they’re independent if they’ve already come out in favor of that candidate’s election, so it’s just a real conflict when you stake yourself out in the public,” he said.

Specifically, state law prohibits boards of elections members from making “written or oral statements intended for general distribution or dissemination to the public at large supporting or opposing the nomination or election of a candidate for public office.” The law goes on to say that, “Individual expressions of opinion, support, or opposition not intended for general public distribution” are allowed.

The Beaufort County Board of Elections member, Republican Delma Blinson, acknowledged at the state board meeting Friday morning that he made a motion at the local tea party meeting to endorse Brannon, one of a handful of Republicans vying to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014, and that the motion was approved. He also spoke in favor of Brannon at the meeting.

His main arguments against removal from office were that his comments and actions were not intended for public dissemination and that they weren’t known publicly until a local resident complained to the state board.

“My actions on Oct. 17 were individual expressions of opinion and support … not intended for general public distribution and therefore not in violation” of the statute, Blinson said. State board members countered that the tea party meeting was open to the public, that about 20 other people were there and that endorsements, by their nature, are made so that the public knows a group’s opinion about a candidate.

The situation came to light through an email from Chocowinity resident William Buonanno to a state Board of Elections member. Buonanno wrote that he believed Blinson’s actions “warrant his removal from the Beaufort County board of elections so that the standards of the board are not compromised any further.”

After the state board’s decision, Blinson said he believed the process was unfair. He said he requested that Buonanno be present so he could question him, but the board denied the request.

“I don’t think I was allowed to confront my accusers,” Blinson said. He also complained that witnesses who wanted to speak on his behalf on Friday weren’t given an opportunity.

Keith Kidwell, Beaufort County Republican Party chairman, said after the hearing that Blinson should have been allowed to call witnesses. “Are we in a democracy or are we in a dictatorship?” he said. “Because this would definitely have the appearance of a dictatorship.”

Gannon: 919-836-2801; Gannon writes for the NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer. For more information, visit www.ncinsider.com.

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