A question regarding the voting method for electing two Buncombe County Superior Court judges in November has been raised by one of the five candidates hoping to take a seat on the District 28 bench. The issue has become an agenda item at the State Board of Elections’ public meeting next Tuesday, Aug. 24, here in Asheville.
Kate Dreher, assistant district attorney for Buncombe County and one of two candidates chosen in last May’s primary for the judgeship open at that time, has petitioned the SBOE to overturn its decision regarding the format of the election ballot in the wake of a second opening on the court.
The question revolves around the retirement in June of Judge Dennis Winner. “When Judge Winner announced his [planned] retirement a week before the primary, I stayed focused on the primary — not election law,” Dreher said. But after the primary, “I realized when I saw [the law] that we should resolve conflict before we have an election that’s challenged.”
According to SBOE General Counsel Don Wright, the board determined that the three candidates who filed for the vacancy left by Winner’s retirement would compete against each other in a separate ballot listing. Dreher and Judge Alan Thornburg, the second primary winner in May (who currently holds that seat by appointment), would still run against each other as originally planned. In an Aug. 10 letter to Wright from Dreher’s legal representative, Adam Mitchell of Raleigh, Dreher takes the position that all five candidates should be included under only one ballot listing “without designation as to vacancy.” The state’s instant-runoff voting system would then be implemented to determine two winners from the list of five.
The three candidates who filed for the Winner opening are Heather Whitaker Goldstein, attorney and currently the executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Asheville; Diane K. McDonald, a private-practice attorney in Asheville; and Judge Marvin Pope, currently a District Court judge who lost in the original primary for Superior Court.
“When I contacted the state board,” Dreher said, “it was obvious they were giving this a lot of thought.” But her motivation, she added, was to settle any questions now, in order to avoid any post-election disruption for the court.
According to Wright, the SBOE will hear arguments on the ballot issue in its public session on Tuesday, Aug. 24, and plans to decide the question then. Candidates Goldstein and McDonald have communicated to Wright via e-mail their agreement with the SBOE’s plan to separate the two seats on the ballot. As a sitting judge, Thornburg has declined to comment, Wright said, and he has had no communication from Pope regarding the issue.
Meanwhile, Rachel Rathbone of the Buncombe County Election Services told the Xpress that a draft ballot listing the judgeships in question separately has already been proofed and returned for printing. (Early voting begins Oct. 14.)
The SBOE meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 24, is open to the public. It begins at 9 a.m. in the ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Asheville.