Lee Nackman: Public, democracy, deserves better from elections board

08/01/2014 12:00 AM

07/31/2014 11:56 AM

I attended the last two Orange County Board of Elections public meetings as a resident who cares about easy access to voting for all citizens. The July 22 meeting was a complete sham. While the meeting’s purpose was advertised on the board’s website as to “receive public input on the 2014 November One-Stop voting hours and location,” the board’s actions said otherwise.

Citizens eager to provide input filled the room to overflowing, and yet Chairwoman Knight opened the meeting by directing each “side” (her word) to organize (how?) to speak for 15 minutes in support or opposition to adding Sunday early voting hours.

By allocating 15 minutes to each “side,” she predetermined that the board would hear equal opposition and support, and have no opportunity to understand the balance of citizen opinion in the room. This predetermined allocation led, for example, to the board hearing a very long statement by a representative of the Republican Party but not allowing an African-American supporter of Sunday voting to speak at all, despite his repeated attempts to do so.

Other public input meetings establish a per-speaker time limit and let anyone speak within that limit, regardless of viewpoint. Indeed, at its public input meeting, the Wake County Board of Elections allowed anyone to speak for three minutes and devoted several hours to public input. Had the Orange County board followed this usual practice, they would have heard what the public wanted to say, not what the board’s chairwoman wanted to hear.

After the 30-minute public input period was closed, Chairwoman Knight somehow found the time to ask two pre-selected poll employees to speak. They both opposed Sunday voting. I wonder how those particular employees were chosen from among the board’s many employees.

The public input process was not the only problem. When board member Cox introduced a motion in support of adding Sunday voting hours, Chairwoman Knight asked Tracy Reams (board staff) if there was money in the budget for Sunday voting hours. Ms. Reams replied that there was not. Well, why would there be money in the budget for something not previously planned? To my amazement, no board member asked basic questions such as how much staffing Sunday hours would cost, whether any other potential funding source existed, or if budget re-prioritization was possible. Anyone seriously considering the public’s request for Sunday hours would have asked these and other questions.

So, I asked Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich for some facts. Four hours of Sunday voting would cost $3,000 to staff, including overtime – little in the context of the county’s $200M annual budget. Moreover, Commissioner Rich told me that the Orange County Commissioners made it clear to Ms. Reams that they were willing to expend additional resources to be sure that everyone was able to vote in the primary election and that that assumption holds true for the general election. It is hard to understand why Ms. Reams wouldn’t have volunteered this information to the board in response to Chairwoman Knight’s question, instead of leaving the false impression that funding was a problem.

As a citizen, I expect from the Board of Elections fairness, integrity, and openness to public input, all of which appeared to be in short supply on July 22. Perhaps it is time to rethink the partisan process by which state statute requires that each county’s board be composed of members recommended by the state chairman of each political party. In practice each county board has two members selected from the governor’s political party and one from the other party. In Orange County, with about 16 percent of voters registered Republican, 49 percent Democratic, 0.5 percent Libertarian, and 34 percent unaffiliated, such a process is unlikely to yield a board that is representative of the county’s citizens, regardless of which party holds the governor’s office. A Board of Elections elected by the voters or appointed by the county commissioners would seem preferable.

Lee Nackman is a resident of Orange County, a member of the non-partisan organization Carolina Jews for Justice, a past co-president of the Kehillah Synagogue, and current co-chair of the Kehillah Synagogue’s Social Action Committee.

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