Photo of the North Carolina Legislature.

A rare victory against voter disenfranchisement in North Carolina

Around lunchtime on November 7, 2017, Linda Pitt drove the six miles to Elm City to vote in Sharpsburg’s election. She walked into the gymnasium of Elm City Elementary School only to be turned away.

There were no ballots. A precinct worker handed Pitt a yellow pad, and the 67-year-old African-American retiree wrote her name and phone number beneath a dozen others. Then she drove back to Sharpsburg.

She got the call hours later that the precinct had ballots and she could come back. But by then she was visiting her son. Then it was time for dinner and she was tired. Plus, she didn’t like to drive in the dark. “If the campaign workers had not come to my home, I would not have made it back to the polling place to vote that night,” Pitt said in an affidavit.

Others heard the rumor that there were no ballots available at Elm City Elementary for the Sharpsburg election, and just didn’t make the trip. Another woman, Valerie Walker, got three separate rides from Sharpsburg to Elm City, and was finally able to vote on the last trip. But an unknown number of Sharpsburg voters from a mostly-Black part of town were disenfranchised in their mayoral election. On that day, incumbent Randy Weaver defeated Robert Williams for Sharpsburg mayor, 139-136. Weaver is white and Williams is Black.

Williams lost by three votes—but Williams won the Wilson County precinct, the one that cast votes at Elm City Elementary School by a margin of 61-9. For two and a half hours on Election Day, that precinct was closed, and there was no State Board of Elections in place to extend its hours.

Williams cried foul and lawyered up. Soon, he’ll get a rematch. But in that respect, Sharpsburg is an outlier.

Disenfranchisement through neglect—and politics, too

Sharpsburg is a square mile at the edge of three North Carolina counties: Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson. Until 2017, residents voted at Town Hall for municipal elections.

“Normally three different counties bring a ballot machine over to Town Hall,” says Maurice Garrett, who ran for Sharpsburg commissioner last year. But in 2011, North Carolina’s General Assembly transferred municipal election administration to the county level, and by 2017 Sharpsburg’s election was shifted to county precincts miles from Sharpsburg and somewhat remote. “One of the polling places was way back in the woods,” says Garrett, describing an Edgecombe precinct located down a dirt road. “You have to see it yourself to believe it.”

Located at Elm City Elementary, Wilson County’s new precinct location for Sharpsburg voters was similarly remote. “It’s about a 20-minute drive,” says Jaclyn Maffetore, a staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “I did the drive and there weren’t any sidewalks along the way.”

“One of the polling places was way back in the woods,” says Garrett, describing an Edgecombe precinct located down a dirt road. “You have to see it yourself to believe it.”

On November 7, 2017, it was raining. Maurice Garrett drove a voter over from Sharpsburg, and when they arrived a little after 10 a.m., they heard the news. “When we got there one of the commissioners, David Pride, came out and said, ‘I just used the last ballot’,” says Garrett.

Garrett assumed it was a good problem, meaning high-turnout. But it wasn’t. There weren’t enough ballots to begin with, and now voters were being turned away. In 2013, 101 ballots were cast for Sharpsburg from Wilson County and over 200 voters were eligible from that portion of the town, but in 2017, the county only printed 12 ballots.
The County Board of Elections gives a bureaucratic reason for the disparity: “There’s this module we have that can run a report that gives you each ballot style in each precinct, and the number of eligible voters for that ballot style,” says Rena Morris, director of the Wilson County Board of Elections. The relevant “ballot style” here was ballots that would be printed specifically for Sharpsburg residents voting in Wilson County. “When I ran the report...I noticed only two people could vote that particular ballot style.”

She printed 12 ballots for Sharpsburg voters. Calls came in the morning of Election Day when the precinct ran out, and she made arrangements for more ballots to be printed off in neighboring Nash County and delivered to Wilson. Out of curiosity she ran the report again, and “the numbers were totally different,” says Morris. This inconsistency remains unexplained.

Garrett waited at Elm City Elementary all morning. “Thirty-five minutes turned into two and a half hours,” he says. “I stayed there the whole time. We had people coming in who couldn’t vote. They were told to come back.”

Many of the voters who left couldn’t come back due to work or transportation. The result was definitely disenfranchisement, says Maffetore, the attorney: “The Wilson County portion is overwhelmingly African-American, quite a few people don’t have transportation and rely on friends and family to get to and from work, where they don’t necessarily work 9-5 jobs, and that can make it more challenging.”

But there should have been a solution available that day: by statute in North Carolina, polling places are able to extend hours when voting was “interrupted for more than 15 minutes.”

That was impossible last November. In 2013, as part of sweeping changes to the state’s election laws, the North Carolina General Assembly shifted authority to make that call from the county to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, but in 2017 there was no state board. That’s because when Governor Roy Cooper was elected in 2016 the General Assembly stripped him of appointment power to the state elections board, the issue ended up in court, and since June of last year the state board has been empty.

On the evening of November 7, 2017 “we could not extend hours because we did not have a state board to make that decision,” says Morris.

The challenge

A native of southeastern Alabama, Sharpsburg mayoral candidate Robert Williams was the first black police officer in his small-town before he joined the military.

After Desert Storm he stayed in the Fayetteville, North Carolina area (where he had been stationed) and found a job in the Rocky Mount Police Department in 1992. It was cheaper to buy a house in Sharpsburg, and that’s where he’s lived since 1993.

Eventually he served on the town council, and he took over as mayor in 2013 when Sheila Williams, also African-American, decided not to seek a fifth-term and retired.

Robert Williams then lost the 2013 election, 202-198, to Randy Weaver, and last November was the rematch. Maurice Garrett told him about the lack of ballots at Elm City Elementary just after 10:30 on the morning of Election Day, and Williams called the state board in Raleigh. “The lady asked me like I had lost my mind,” says Williams. “And I said, ‘Ma’am they only had 12 paper ballots.’”

Williams thinks a good 20-25 voters from the Wilson County side of Sharpsburg were disenfranchised. Even if it were only three or four, it could have swung the election in his favor.

Williams filed an election protest with the Wilson County Board of Elections with the support of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham.

North Carolina requires counties to provide each voting precinct with an adequate number of ballots, and the State Board of Elections can order a new election when eligible voters “sufficient in number to change the outcome of the election were improperly prevented from voting” or other “irregularities affected a sufficient number of votes to change the outcome of the election.”

After hearing testimony and reviewing the evidence, the Wilson Board referred the protest to the State Board, finding that clerical error resulted in an insufficient number ballots at the Toisnot Precinct, that “cast doubt” upon the results of the Sharpsburg mayoral race. With no State Board in place, Williams’s protest was sent to Wake County Superior Court in Raleigh.

On the morning of February 9, the candidates, their wives, and a couple interns from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice watched the short proceeding.

“It’s undisputed the voters of Sharpsburg were unfortunately disenfranchised,” argued Maffetore on behalf of Williams. And Judge Paul Ridgeway agreed.

Williams thinks a good 20-25 voters from the Wilson County side of Sharpsburg were disenfranchised. Even if it were only three or four, it could have swung the election in his favor.

“I do find there was an irregularity and that it has likely affected the outcome of this election,” said Judge Ridgeway. He ordered a new election to take place on the date of North Carolina’s primary in May.

“It’s like starting all over again and knocking on doors like we did last time,” said a relieved Williams in the hallway.

“Now you’ll get a real chance,” Maffetore added. Her colleagues took a photo of Williams and his wife, quietly celebrating a rare victory for voting rights in North Carolina.

Down the hall, the incumbent Weaver said he was disappointed but not surprised, and while the new election was ordered because of insufficient ballots, he was also frank about the effect of remote polling places. “There’s a lot of poverty [in Sharpsburg],” he said, in his thick southern drawl. “And by them not being able to come to Town Hall to vote, I thought that was unfair to everybody.”

It’s a small victory for voting rights, but also a cautionary tale when the number of polling places have been cut all across the state and there is no quick fix for problems on election day. Sharpsburg gets a do-over because the election was close. But the next community might not be so lucky.

“You got to get a ride or get in your car and drive six-miles down the road, to a schoolhouse, while school is in session,” Weaver said. “It’s ridiculous.”

A rematch won’t solve the problem of distant polling places in communities where transportation is already a problem. That complaint would go, again, to the nonexistent state board of elections.

“Sharpsburg is a really good example of what happens when the polling place isn’t accessible,” Maffetore said. “Many of the folks have to get rides because they have no transportation, and the fact there were no ballots illuminates that because they weren’t able to get multiple rides. We really need to consider the way in which the placement of a polling place can disenfranchise an entire community.”

Weaver and Williams will run against each other again on May 8, 2018.

It’s a small victory for voting rights, but also a cautionary tale when the number of polling places have been cut all across the state and there is no quick fix for problems on election day. Sharpsburg gets a do-over because the election was close. But the next community might not be so lucky.

  • About

    Michael Cooper is an attorney at the McElwee Firm in his hometown of North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in the foothills of Appalachia. He is Co-Director of New Leaders Council North Carolina, and has contributed to National Affairs, New Republic, U.S. News & World Report, the Charlotte Observer, and the Winston-Salem Journal.