A grassroots drive to force a referendum on partisan elections in Asheville appears tantalizingly close to success, but the full accounting won’t be known until the end of July.
As of Monday, July 23, the Buncombe County Board of Elections had validated 4,924 petition signatures—a mere 76 shy of the 5,000 signatures needed to bring the matter to a public vote.
“It’s going to be very close,” predicted Director of Election Services Trena Parker
Hundreds of the more than 6,000 signatures submitted remain in dispute—enough to either put the petition over the top or kill it outright. “We’ve got 549 letters mailed out to people who signed petitions,” she reported on July 23. “They signed as city residents, but our database shows that they live in the county.” Those voters have until July 30 to confirm their city residency by mail. (Parker said 557 signees had already been disqualified because they weren’t registered to vote, 95 had been eliminated in keeping with a federal rule because eight years had elapsed “without us knowing their whereabouts,” 71 signed twice, 13 signatures were illegible, and one was for a deceased person.)
But whatever the final tally, the ambition and audacity of the petition drive are beyond question. Here’s how it happened:
When the Asheville City Council narrowly approved a return to partisan Council and mayoral elections last month, it “struck a chord” with Charlie Hume, an electrical engineer who lives in south Asheville. He figured something needed to be done.
That chord became a symphony as Hume and scores of others reached out to Asheville residents—on the Web and through phone calls, newspapers and good old-fashioned knocks on neighbors’ doors—urging them to sign a petition that would force a public vote on the matter. They gave themselves a name: Let Asheville Vote. They banded together across ideologies and party affiliations.
“In the beginning, there was this idea that it was a Republican effort,” notes Asheville resident Christy Fryar. But later, she says, “a lot of Democrats became involved.”
Although Hume was at the center of the petition drive, he emphasizes that many others were also involved. And like any good 21st-century tale, it all began with an e-mail.
“The day after the vote, I sent out a message on the [Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods] listserv,” says Hume. “I asked people, ‘Does this sound right to you?’”
That was Wednesday, June 13—the day after the 4-3 Council vote. By 11 a.m. Friday, Hume had hustled down to the Board of Elections and filed his intent to launch a petition drive. An hour later, he gathered with a handful of similarly concerned people at Caffiend, a coffee shop on Merrimon Avenue.
One of those people was Fryar, who volunteered to serve as a liaison between the group and local businesses. She persuaded more than 20 businesses to post petitions on their premises.
Meanwhile, Hume powered up his laptop and went to work setting up a Web site for the ad hoc group.
An uphill fight
To be eligible, people needed to live within the city limits and be registered voters; they had to write legibly; and they could sign only once.
It was a daunting task: Under state law, the campaign had a little more than a month to gather the 5,000 signatures needed to force a referendum. At first they came quickly, and Hume and his fellow activists grew hopeful that they might be able to amass a 1,000-signature buffer in case the Board of Elections disqualified some of them. The volunteers found a sympathetic ear in the Asheville Citizen-Times, which Hume says offered to run the petition in each edition for $1 per day. A June 17 editorial in the paper also supported the group’s effort, notes Hume. The petition appeared in Mountain Xpress and the Biltmore Beacon as well. Local talk radio, television and even media upstart YouTube amplified the group’s message.
But by the July 10 Council meeting—a mere six days before the deadline—the drive seemed stalled. Signatures had tailed off, and a June 25 rally was long on speakers but short on audience.
“It was a low point,” says Hume. “We only had 2,500 signatures. Personally, I was hoping that Council would vote to initiate a referendum themselves, but I wasn’t holding out any hopes.” In fact, that meeting gave the campaign a considerable boost. The election issue dominated Council’s discussion, and many residents also weighed in. After that, voters started showing up at the grassroots group’s West Asheville headquarters in droves.
“We gathered 3,500 signatures in six days,” says Hume. “People were just streaming into the Haywood Road location saying, ‘Where do I sign?’”
When Hume delivered the petitions to the city clerk’s office on July 16, they contained 6,192 signatures, he reports. “People were driving up to me as I went to the clerk’s office, handing me more petitions.”
In her 13 years as director of the Buncombe County Board of Elections, Parker says she’d never seen a petition calling for a referendum to amend the city’s charter. The time-consuming job of fact-checking each signature, says Parker, is “a lot of work.” But, she adds matter-of-factly, “that’s our job.”
The people speak
Council member Brownie Newman, who introduced the move to partisan elections, says he has “nothing but respect” for both the petition drive’s organizers and the individual signers, adding that the level of public outcry surprised him.
“Ten years ago, when Council voted to make elections nonpartisan—overturning 150 years of procedure—people had very little to say about it,” notes Newman.
He also maintains that the relative ease with which these organizers gathered more than 6,000 signatures belies one of the chief concerns of those opposed to partisan elections: that the more than 2,000 signatures an independent candidate would need to gain a spot on the ballot would constitute too high a hurdle. “I think that an independent candidate—a serious candidate—would have no trouble getting the signatures they need to put themselves on the ballot,” he says.
Many people, notes Hume—including local media—have tried to cast Let Asheville Vote as group favoring nonpartisan elections, but he maintains that the truth is more elusive.
“Personally, I am for a nonpartisan system,” he says. “But I think a lot of people who signed, if you asked them, would say that they’re OK with partisan elections. But they still want to have their say in the decision.
“We weren’t choosing one way or another,” Hume explains. “We were just trying to bring it to a vote. It’s a fairness issue.”
And while Newman called the petition drive “a sign that democracy is alive and well at the local level,” he also allowed that if he and his Council colleagues had known how controversial the issue would prove to be, “We might have gone about things a little differently.”