Board renews probe request of Montreat voter registration

Paul Clark

Rekindling its months-old request, the Buncombe County Board of Elections has asked state election officials to look into voter registration that preceded Montreat’s contentious 2015 election.

The board is sending the N.C. State Board of Elections information about the registration of one Montreat voter, Patrick Gannon, the state board public information officer, said last week.

The county board’s action follows a September 2016 request by its chairman John Watson to investigate voter registration in Montreat prior to the 2015 election. Following a swell of new voter registrations, the election polarized this small community of retired missionaries, second-home owners and summer residents and significantly shifted the ideological balance of the Montreat Board of Commissioners.

In his Sept. 20, 2016 letter to the state board about the Montreat election, Watson said the county board “finds itself in the difficult and unique position of having to have certified an election in which we cannot know with certainty the number of valid and lawful votes cast.”

Prior to the 2015 election, 68 new voters registered in Montreat, a significant addition to the 465 voter registrations the town averaged the past five years, according to Watson’s letter. By comparison, new voter registrations totaled 7 in 2009, 8 in 2011 and 16 in 2013, Watson told the state elections board.

A surge of registrations before an election isn’t unusual, especially if an issue such as Montreat’s new town hall unites certain factions, said Trena Parker, director of Buncombe County election services. “Certainly with an issue that important to the town of Montreat, increased registrations would not be out of the norm,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean they’re invalid. Before presidential elections, people register like crazy. That in and of itself doesn’t qualify for any serious concerns.”

At issue during the 2015 election was a controversial decision by commissioners to site the new town hall on Florida Terrace, an action opposed by several residents, some of whom successfully sued to block the move. After a strong get-out-the-vote drive by opponents of the Florida Terrace site, two candidates in their camp, Kitty Fouche and Bill Gilliland, won seats in the nonpartisan election. Many voters, including new voters, cast ballots during early voting.

In October 2015 a couple of weeks before Election Day, Joe Standaert, husband of town commissioner Mary Standaert, filed a complaint with the Buncombe County Board of Elections challenging the recent registrations of 17 voters, contending they were part-time residents of Montreat with domiciles elsewhere that required them to vote in their hometowns, not in Montreat.

On Oct. 28, 2015, the Buncombe County Board of Elections met until well past midnight to hear those challenges. The board ended up nullifying eight of 17 challenged registrations and upheld the rest.

On Sept. 20, 2016, Watson wrote the state elections board. “Given more time and further inquiry,” he stated, “we believe that the results of the challenge hearing may have been different and some challenges which were overruled may have been sustained.

“For example, the (Buncombe County) board of election has since learned that one challenged registrant had months prior to the hearing had tenants in the residence which she claimed as her domicile and she was in fact residing in Black Mountain. Curiously her tenants claimed the same residence in Montreat as their domicile and also voted in the Montreat election.”

“There were other registrants who were not challenged who appear to residents in other states,” Watson wrote. “One registrant has her Montreat properties listed for rent on VRBO and has posted that she lives three hours away - we have confirmed that she in fact lives in Columbia, S.C.”

Watson in his letter notes that Montreat is a community largely composed of seasonal and second homes that does not have home mail delivery (all home occupants pick up their mail at the town post office).

Among the “unusual increase” in voter registration in 2015, Watson stated, were “many … new registrants (who) provided addresses other than Montreat as their mailing address and requested that ballots be sent to locations other than Montreat.”

Some of the absentee voters were likely students, overseas missionaries or residents who were temporarily away, Watson wrote. But the increase in new registrants and the “disproportionately high” number of absentee ballot requests eight months before the 2015 election “suggests that many people who registered to vote in Montreat do not in fact reside in Montreat” as full-time residents, he said. “Montreat is not, in fact, their domicile.”

Watson declined two requests by The Black Mountain News to respond to questions about why he waited nearly a year to express his concerns to state elections officials and what he thinks about the state’s not taking up his concerns.

On March 3, 2017, the state elections board’s chief investigator Joan Fleming wrote Watson that the Buncombe County board should furnish the state board with any information that voter or voter registration fraud may have occurred, if it believed it did occur. Fleming reiterated that position last week, saying in a phone interview that the state hasn’t looked into Watson’s concerns because he hasn’t provided evidence that anything wrong may have occurred.

“They really need to furnish some facts to warrant us opening an investigation,” Fleming said. “ln Mr. Watson’s letter were general descriptions of some challenges that had already been heard and adjudicated by the (county) board properly. His letter described a general feeling that there was a problem with registration, but it didn’t furnish any information of anything that was actionable.”

“We have asked them (the Buncombe County board) for any information about any particular voter who may have committed a crime,” Gannon said. As of May 30, the state board hadn’t received any information, “though we understand there is information coming about one vote,” Gannon said.

Fleming and Gannon declined to talk about that one vote. Ongoing investigations into possible criminal activity are not public records in North Carolina, said Katelyn Love, deputy general counsel at the state elections board.

If and when the state board receives the local board’s information about the Montreat voter, it was review it “and take appropriate action,” Gannon said.

Voter fraud in North Carolina can result in various misdemeanors and felonies, but it is not the same as someone’s not knowing they were ineligible to vote, Love said. “There’s a difference between voter fraud and someone ineligible to vote casting a ballot,” she said.