Students at Warren Wilson College delivered a contentious 18-vote win to Ellen Frost in 2012, giving Democrats a one-seat majority on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. She faces a rematch with Republican opponent Christina Merrill this year for control of District 2, and the two candidates returned to the decisive campus in Swannanoa for an Oct. 29 debate.
Merrill was asked by students at the event why she took legal action to strike their ballots in the 2012 contest. “It got spinned in the media that, ‘oh they’re trying to disenfranchise college students.’ I thought that was the silliest thing, because my sons are college students,” she replied. “All we were trying to do is make sure those votes were coming from the people they said they were coming from — that it wasn’t an effort to manipulate the outcome of an election.”
The 2012 election was the first in which the Warren Wilson campus was divided between Commissioner Districts 1 and 2, due to redistricting. But as of Election Day that year, most residents were registered to vote at the address of the school’s mailing facility rather than their dorms, as state law requires. And several had cast ballots at incorrect precincts during early voting. That left Election Services scrambling to determine which ballots should count in each race.
During subsequent recounts, the Buncombe County Board of Elections added a number of provisional ballots from campus to the final tally, reversing an unofficial election-night count that had Merrill in the lead. Merrill responded with legal action, but eventually the bipartisan State Board of Elections voted unanimously to dismiss her charge that local election officials had violated any laws.
Merrill later filed a legal brief supporting changes to state election laws that will prevent ballots cast at the wrong precinct from being counted in final tallies, as had happened at Warren Wilson.
“I believe that I was harmed by, and possibly lost because of, the same-day registration during the early-voting period combined with the lack of a photo ID requirement,” Merrill is quoted as saying in the Raleigh News and Observer. “I believe that, because of these laws, a transient student population, of motivated, partisan voters, was able to deceive poll workers about which dorm they supposedly lived in, in order to oppose my candidacy.”
In a campaign email newsletter, Frost highlighted this quote by Merrill. And in front of the packed room of Warren Wilson students Oct. 29, Frost said the voting rules Merrill supports are “horrible” measures aimed at “voter suppression.” She noted that the law doesn’t allow college ID cards to be used as voting ID. (The voter ID provisions do not take effect until 2016).
In a previous interview with Xpress, Merrill said she doesn’t think college students should be allowed to register to vote where they attend school unless they change their permanent address to correspond to that location. And at the Warren Wilson forum, Merrill said that beyond helping prevent voter fraud, “it’s important in 2014 to have ID so you can function in society.” When critics talk about suppressing minority votes, she added that as a woman of hispanic descent, “I’m one of the people they talk about when they talk about minorities.”
Meanwhile, Frost said “this election is pivotal to make sure we keep going forward.”
She touted a record of support for public schools and economic development, stressing that a top priority in a new term would be “advocating for living wage jobs.”
But Merrill criticized her for voting in 2013 for a budget that included a property tax rate increase. That budget also included a raise for all county employees, including commissioners, which Merrill called “an ethical and integrity issue.”
“I would not take a raise and at the same time raise taxes,” she said.
Frost said the tax rate hike was necessary to fill a void left by decreasing property values and unfunded state and federal mandates.
Merrill said she comes from a poor background, including time as a single mom living in a Fairview trailer. If elected, she’d be fiscally conservative, she said, explaining: “Those hard times have really made me appreciate the value of the dollar.”
District 1 Commissioner Brownie Newman also participated in the forum, although the Democrat faces no Republican opposition on the ballot this year. Newman, a Warren Wilson graduate, used his time to repeatedly advocate for Frost.
Newman cited the county’s a AAA credit rating in his argument that he and Frost have been good stewards of taxpayer dollars. He said Republicans would like to repeal zoning rules and cut funding to local nonprofits.
He told the students that if Frost loses, Republicans will make Buncombe County look “a lot more like Raleigh.”
In fact, the candidates were asked about a number of state and federal issues. The most contentious was abortion, and they expressed divergent views. Merrill said she supported new state abortion rules, which she characterized as “a raise in medical standards.” Frost characterized them as “horrible choices made by older white men telling women what to do with their bodies, and it’s absolutely wrong.”
In her appeal for support, Frost told the students, “I need your vote to make sure Buncombe stays blue. It’s vital.” She said the event was one of the highlights of the campaign.
Merrill acknowledged that the college crowd was likely “more liberal,” but said she was happy to have an opportunity to discuss her perspective. She urged them to “be independent thinkers” and not “be swayed by media or propaganda,” she said. “I love people regardless of their political views.”
Both candidates said they hope that the kind of confusion over ballots and polling sites that occurred on campus two years ago doesn’t happen again.
In addition to part of the Warren Wilson campus, District 2 encompasses Fairview, Black Mountain and Weaverville. Read more about the District 2 commissioner race here.