Board of Elections dismisses GOP complaints

In a tense Oct. 29 meeting, the Buncombe County Board of Elections cited lack of evidence in voting 2-1 to dismiss complaints by the Buncombe County Republican Party concerning alleged election-law violations. The complaints concerned James Taylor concert tickets given away at three polling locations.

So, about those tickets: Board of Elections member Robert Van Wagner, Chair Jones Byrd and Secretary Lucy Smith study video provided by Republican activist Chad Nesbitt (watching in the background) at a hearing on free concert tickets given out at polling sites. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Board Chair Jones Byrd said the Republicans had failed to find evidence that vote-buying took place, particularly noting the lack of a witness who could testify.

“If you give out tickets and you could have better judgment about where you did it, that’s not a crime,” said Byrd. “This was the time to get them [witnesses] in here. Nobody got them in here. The dearth of any sort of proof to substantiate what the complaint is about is surprising, but it is what it is. I really don’t see anything that supports pursuit of the complaint.”

Republican activists and party members urged the board to investigate the complaints, asserting that private citizens shouldn’t have to.

“There certainly does seem to be evidence of the appearance of irregularities; unfortunately, we can’t prove it,” acknowledged Buncombe GOP Secretary George Keller. But Steve Duncan, who chairs the GOP’s executive committee for the 11th Congressional District, called on the board to pass the complaints on to the proper authorities.

“I would ask the board to refer these complaints to the appropriate governmental agencies that are empowered and have the resources and the staff to investigate to determine if there was a conspiracy to reward individuals with tickets for their vote,” said Duncan. “I don’t see that we, as individual citizens, can work our way through 1,178 voters.

“We don’t have that capacity; this board doesn’t have that capacity,” he added. “So I’d ask that you refer it to the state board and any bodies, such as the [State Bureau of Investigation].”

Mark Delk, who brought the complaint forward in the first place, sounded a similar note, saying, “What concerns me here is that the duty to investigate has been foisted on the citizens, who are ill-equipped to investigate.”

Board member Robert Van Wagner, the lone Republican on the three-person panel, made a motion to refer the complaints to the SBI and other investigative bodies.

“The way it was done drew the question marks,” he noted. “Whether it was correct or incorrect, it’s the mere fact that tickets were given out at voting locations during the process. When Sarah Palin came to town, they had to come to McCain headquarters to get the tickets.” But Van Wagner’s motion failed for lack of a second.

Republican activist Chad Nesbitt showed the board a WLOS-TV report featuring an Obama volunteer talking about giving out the tickets. But Byrd pointed out that the woman had said the tickets were being given to any voter and that her statement was not the same thing as testimony given under oath. “There’s absolutely nothing in that video to indicate that there’s a quid pro quo,” he said. “This has been going for a week, and not one person has been produced that has any firsthand knowledge.”

Nesbitt also said the Republican Women’s Club had faced complaints about giving out baked goods near polling places 12 years ago and the board had ruled that this was prohibited.

“When there was a complaint against the Carolina Stompers, they sent an investigator all the way from Raleigh to meet with us,” said Nesbitt, who heads up the local conservative activist group. “I don’t understand why this board can’t drive down to Merrimon Avenue and do an investigation.”

Byrd’s motion to dismiss the complaints was seconded by Lucy Smith. “Just because someone gives you something doesn’t mean you’re going to vote that way,” she said.

But local GOP Chair Tim Johnson criticized Byrd’s motion. “An investigation would say yea or nay, but to say that it doesn’t even deserve an investigation, that’s telling me that any time we have a complaint, we have to walk in here with our witnesses or we don’t have merit,” he said.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Byrd replied. Johnson returned to the point later, saying, “Perception is reality.”

“That’s the part that’s more hurtful from my vantage point—it’s like our perception isn’t even valid,” he said.

“We’re not here to validate taste,” Byrd shot back.

“Don’t belittle me by saying that,” responded Johnson. “It is my perception.”

“When I say ‘feeling,’ I’m talking about the same thing,” Byrd explained. “We’re here to determine if the law was violated, and we haven’t seen any evidence that it has.”

While some individuals, including Duncan, will pursue an appeal, Johnson told Xpress later, the GOP as a whole may not.

“I’ve got other things to worry about right now,” Johnson said. “I’ve still got to meet with the executive committee, but right now we’re not planning to appeal.”

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