Preliminary hearing marked by charges of ‘intimidation,’ ‘suppression’
By Roger McCredie-At a contentious preliminary hearing last week, the Buncombe County Board of Elections agreed to pursue investigation of 95 of the 182 voter registration challenges brought before it by the North Carolina Voter Intergrity Project.
The challenges were presented to BOE on March 14, in the form of notarized copies of letters returned as “undeliverable” from an 800-name mail survey the VIP conducted in Buncombe County.
In the end, the BOE dismissed 86 of the challenged registrations, including a block of 55 they said did not meet legal criteria for further examination. The rejection of the group of 55 was objected to by BOE Chairman John Watson, who said that the fact they had been returned as “undeliverable” was prima facie evidence, under state voting law, to qualify for inclusion in a full hearing.
Shortly after it began, the hearing became a standing-room-only event. Watson repeatedly reminded spectators and participants that “this is a quasi-judicial proceeding” involving sworn testimony, and not a public forum. He nevertheless had difficulty keeping audience members from expressing their views by seeking permission to ask questions.
The stage was set for contention, in fact, as the proceedings opened and atty. Sarah Zambon, representing the Asheville League of Women Voters, insisted on reading a prepared statement demanding that all 182 of the challenged registrations be thrown out.
Zambon based the LWV’s objections to allowing any of the challenges to go forward on four points: first, that “returned mail and people not answering the door [to VIP’s door-to-door canvass of addresses] do not prove these voters are ineligible to vote.” Secondly, she said, the VIP’s actions in submitting the challenges “suggests that there is some kind of wrongdoing being perpetrated … where there is no evidence supporting this.” Thirdly, she said,the challenges “paint inactive voters as somehow less than full members of their community … these challenged voters are just normal people doing normal things … people choose not to vote.”
And finally, Zambon accused the VIP of “a targeted effort to intimidate and suppress the votes of some in our community. This is unconstitutional and unconscionable,” she said. Zambon said the challenged voters reside in only 11 of the county’s 80 voting precincts, and that those 11 precincts have substantial minority populations.
But VIP Executive Director Jay DeLancy responded that the sole criterion for compiling the mailing list “voter density” at given address, especially those listing eight or more voters at a single residence, and added that a primary concern in conducting the survey was to detect and prevent possible voter identity theft, as well as the introduction of “fictional voters” into the mix. “Members of the criminal enterprise former;y known as ACORN have been convicted in numerous states of fraudulently embedding voters at addresses where they did not reside,” he said.
In rebuttal to Zambon, DeLancy supplied some statistics of his own. Of the 182 challenged voters, he said, only 35 were black, 127 were white and the remainder were of other ethnicities. Democrats made up 76 of the challenged votes along with 31 Republicans and 72 unaffiliated voters. The proportions, DeLancy said, “closely match Buncombe County voter demographics.
“Anybody who would accuse us of targeting a specific demographic needs to get their facts [straight] before they make an accusation like that,” DeLancy said.
VIP and Tea Party officials were not happy with half a loaf of their challenges going forward. “This was the first challenge we have filed under a Republican controlled Board of Elections,” DeLancy said later, “and it was almost a carbon copy of when Democrats ran the process. In both cases, two wolves and a sheep voted to dismiss any challenges that might have exposed the existence of voter fraud, while sustaining the ones that were innocuous.”
But if the VIP ranks were disappointed, their political opposites were angry to the point of sounding ominous. An anonymous e-mail received by radio talk show host Pete Kaliner and copied to local Tea Party chairman Jane Belello said:
“Tea Bagger Jay “weasel” Watson is board of elections chair. I got there at end of meeting It was clear baggers were not expecting that many people, especially Black people, to be there. All they are doing is energizing people to vote against gop. I may get a permit to have gun on my hip so I can go to gop precincts and challenge every bagger I see. But why did the baggers think they could get away with this brazen assault in an activists city like Asheville?? Sorta stupid.”
The e-mail was turned over to city police.