Despite opposite party affiliations, Sally Stein and Mary Ann Braine can agree on at least one thing: The integrity of elections is paramount to the health of our democracy.
As the newest appointees to the Buncombe County Board of Elections, Stein, a registered Democrat, and Braine, a registered Republican, are both impressed with the security and organization of Buncombe’s elections, despite allegations of election improprieties in other states.
The two took disparate paths to their seats on the board, and Corinne Duncan, Buncombe’s director of elections, says diversity is vital to running healthy and representative elections.
“Our office is intentional about working to build positive relationships with everyone we interact with. We strive to hold a space for all voices, and the bipartisan meetings of the Board of Elections embody this,” Duncan says.
Stein and Braine were appointed by the N.C. State Board of Elections to join the five-member, bipartisan board after being recommended by the state chairs of their respective parties. They were sworn in on July 18.
They were appointed to replace outgoing members Republican Robert Carpenter and Democrat Linda Block.
They will serve two-year terms, attend countless meetings and make $2,600 a year. Like every county board of elections in the state, Buncombe has two Democratic and two Republican appointees. The chair, appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper, is Jake Quinn, a Democrat. The other members are Glen C. Shults Jr., a Democrat, and Republican Steven Aceto.
County boards of elections appoint judges and assistants to work the polls on Election Day, investigate irregularities and violations of election law, count absentee and provisional ballots, conduct hearings on protests, and certify results, among other duties. Boards of elections aren’t fiscal bodies; election services staff and equipment are funded by county governments.
In separate interviews with Xpress, Braine and Stein both stressed the importance of working across party lines to maintain the integrity of elections locally and ensure transparency of the process.
“In these days and times especially, it feels so nice to be able to be in the same room with persons of a different party and work together on a common goal, which is to make sure our elections are safe and transparent. And that has been really inspiring,” says Stein.
For Braine, transparency is the key word.
“Hopefully, as a board member, I can help bring some transparency to [the process]. And also, the integrity of our system is critical at this point in time. We want people to feel like our elections matter; otherwise, they’re just not going to vote,” Braine says.
Tunes of service
Stein spent much of her career working in various health-related fields, often focused on behavioral and mental health issues. She has been a social worker and a nurse, worked in general and psychiatric hospitals, directed a program addressing childhood obesity and worked to integrate behavioral and mental health services into doctors’ offices, she says.
When she retired in 2012, she began volunteering on various nonprofit boards, including Helpmate and United Way.
She helped establish the Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness, an organization that supports those in recovery by matching them with peers who have gone through similar substance use and mental health challenges. She still serves on the board.
But what really keeps her moving is music. She plays various styles of music all around Asheville, including old-time and Celtic.
“I think it’s just how it feels in my body. I grin big when I hear something I really love. My whole body moves when I hear something I love. It’s just in my blood,” she says.
Stein didn’t really become involved in politics and elections until a friend convinced her to become a chief judge, which supervises a precinct, on Election Day in 2020. She did it again in 2022, and when there was an opening on the board, she decided that would be a good way to give back to the community in a new manner.
Less than a month after their first day, the board went to a state conference Aug. 14-15, when Stein says she got goosebumps when hundreds of workers from around the state stood up to proudly say the Pledge of Allegiance together.
“Sitting in a room with 800 people and not talking about partisan politics, but instead talking about our single goal, was a delight,” she says.
For her family
Braine, who was born in Asheville, brings a more family-oriented perspective to her service on the board.
After working as a hairstylist for years in Knoxville, Tenn., she returned to Asheville with her husband and went to school for accounting and computer programming at A-B Tech.
She started working at the polls in 2016 after her daughters grew up and moved out. She started thinking about what kind of world she was leaving them.
“What can I do to make this a better place? And when you have time, I think it’s incumbent upon us to be involved in the system. Elections are the primary way that people [can have an effect on] their government. You have the ability to choose people to represent you and to hold them accountable,” she says.
Working at the polls got her even more curious about the inner workings of elections, and she started attending board meetings regularly in 2022 to learn more, she says.
“There’s so much that goes on before elections that most people have no clue until you start attending the meetings.”
Braine always asked a lot of questions and eventually was asked if she would be interested in joining the board.
She says her background in information technology and accounting will translate well to a board that spends a lot of time counting absentee ballots and auditing election results.
Stein and Braine took different paths to the board of elections, but they share confidence in the system and a sense of duty.
Braine, a self-proclaimed skeptic, wasn’t so sure when she started attending board meetings after watching the news about 2020 election results being called into question in other states.
“As far as Buncombe County, I’ll be honest with you, I was very surprised,” she acknowledges.
“In a year and a half of watching them, I was pleased. I felt like the Buncombe County Board of Elections was trying to do our job, and our job is to actually enforce the existing statutes.”
Now on the board, Braine says the staff and other board members all have the best interest of residents and the system’s integrity in mind.
Stein agrees, saying she has 100% confidence in the system in place.
“So far, I can say that from both my chief judge work and my work for the last two, three months with this board that I’m pretty impressed with the organization of it, staff knowledge and the leadership for both the board and the staff. So, I feel really supported,” she says.
Braine’s priority is to bring increased transparency to the board, possibly by moving meetings to later in the day to make them easier to attend.
“Hopefully, we can help people understand the process better and we need their input. If they think we’re doing something that’s not the best process, not the best procedure, then we need to be listening to it,” she says.
Stein’s goal is to maintain the system so more people than ever before can participate in the process and vote, she says.
“This is the central piece of our democracy, the right to vote. And, if the votes are fair, and people are elected fairly, and there’s due process for challenges, and then there’s some end result, that is where we all accept the results and move on. This is like the bedrock of democracy, this work.”