The bipartisan North Carolina Board of Elections voted unanimously Dec. 13 to dismiss District 2 Republican candidate Christina Kelley G. Merrill’s charges that local elections officials violated any laws in counting the ballots of Warren Wilson College students.
However, Merrill now says she’ll appeal the decision to the N.C. superior court in Wake County, as allowed by state law. In the meantime, it’s unlikely any candidates from District 2 will be sworn in until after that court acts. The District 2 race will determine which party holds a majority on the expanded seven-member board.
Merrill charges that the state board’s meeting was “a political hearing” and said she hopes the courts will eventually provide a forum for her to present as-yet-unheard evidence and for the Warren Wilson ballots she questions to be “looked at unbiasedly.”
“We’re still asking for the same thing we’ve been asking for since day one: We want a hearing on these Warren Wilson voters who were moved five days before the election from District 1 to District 2,” she maintains. “It has become a partisan issue, and its unfortunate, because there’s a lot of voters in the county who are disenchanted with that.”
The small liberal arts school is divided between commissioner districts 1 and 2; Merrill’s protest raises questions over the legality of the process used by the Buncombe County Election Services Department to determine which district they live in. Newsweek recently ranked the school the most liberal college in the country, so it’s likely that throwing out any ballots from its residents would help Merrill make up her 18-vote deficit behind Democrat Ellen Frost and win a seat on the board.
The Buncombe County Board of Elections voted Nov. 29 along party lines, with Democrats Jones Byrd and Lucy Smith denying the protest and Republican Robert Van Wagner objecting. However, the state board is made up of three Democrats and two Republicans, and they voted unanimously Dec. 13, concluding that there was no probable cause to give further consideration to Merrill’s charges.
“I think people are so quick to make partisan accusations, and I think the fact that it was 5-0 kind of dismisses that,” Frost maintains, dismissing Merrill’s request to remove Warren Wilson ballots from the results as an attempt at disenfranchisement.
Election officials won’t certify any of the District 2 winners until after Merrill’s appeal to the courts is settled, according to Johnnie McLean, deputy director of administration for the state board.
“My biggest concern now is there’s a third of Buncombe County not being represented on the board of commissioners,” says Frost. “It needs to be accepted that the election’s over, and a winner has been decided. … Enough’s enough, really.”
Winners from other districts were sworn in Dec. 3, and held a meeting the next day to set their own pay and rule on several rezoning issues.
After several recounts, District 2 Republican Mike Fryar is also waiting to be sworn in despite earning a narrow first place finish in all the vote tallies.
“One way or another, I thought it would be done today. … It’s something I have to live with. I’m not really pleased,” he notes, adding that he thinks the state board’s unanimous bipartisan decision “made a little bit of a statement.” However, he says with the results so tight, he doesn’t blame Merrill for continuing her fight.
“That’s her decision,” he notes, adding: “Ellen, right now, at this point, she has won it, but it can always flip, I guess.”