Old election board disbands in Forsyth County as Republicans take control

by Jordan Green

As a consequence of voters electing a Republican governor for the first time since 1989, local election boards across the state will pass from Democratic to Republican control this month.

In Forsyth County, that tolls the end of the chairmanship of Linda Sutton, an organizer with Democracy North Carolina who pushed successfully for expanded early voting and shepherded the county election office through a period of turmoil when former employees accused the top administrator of harassment and illegal activities about two years ago.

Her two colleagues, Democrat Michael Flatow and Republican Jonathan Dills, are cycling off the board to pursue other activities. A new board, comprised of Republicans Ken Raymond and Stuart Russell, along with Democrat Fleming El-Amin holds its organizational meeting on July 16.

The three board members gathered in a conference room at the Forsyth County election office last week to share a meal of takeout soup and sandwiches in what Sutton characterized as a “farewell party.” They were joined by Elections Director Rob Coffman and two college-aged interns who came with Sutton.

“Did you all follow the Supreme Court decision on voting rights?” Coffman asked.

“You know we did,” Flatow replied. “Pre-clearance is gone for now,” Coffman remarked. “Trust me, this is going to speed up voter ID.”

One of the interns chimed in. “How do y’all feel about that filibuster in Texas?” he asked.

“Is that before or after they executed the five millionth prisoner?” Flatow responded drily.

“By 2020, Texas will be a purple state,” he continued. “That’s why they have to keep people from voting.”

Dills, as the lone Republican on the outgoing board, might have been expected to take a different view. He started to rebut, but then thought better of it.

“I have to be careful what I say,” he said. Flatow said he did not seek appointment to a second term because he is currently serving as treasurer of the Forsyth County Democratic Party. His replacement is Fleming El-Amin, a former county party chairman. The county party also recommended Eric Ellison as an alternate.

Dills, a local lawyer in Winston-Salem who has served one term, said he decided to conclude his service so he can seek appointment to replace Chief Judge William B. Reingold, who is retiring from the Forsyth County district court bench.

Ken Raymond was the Forsyth County Republican Party’s top choice for appointment, Chairman Scott Cumbie said, but the second choice, whom he declined to name, did not get the nod. Instead, Stuart Russell landed the second seat. The local parties recommend nominees to the NC Board of Elections — now also Republican-controlled, which in turn recommends nominees for appointment to the governor. Cumbie said Pam Lofland, a former Forsyth County Board of Elections seasonal employee who publicly denounced alleged abuses in the office, received fewer votes than Raymond.

Sutton, who was first appointed to the board in 2007 and became chair two years later, said she understands that the party that controls the executive branch gets to hold the majority on local elections boards.

“We’re not happy about the extremism,” she said in an interview outside the conference room. “We just hope whoever is appointed across the state will take into consideration all the voters and makes sure to protect the rights of the voters.”

Under Sutton’s watch, several former employees accused Elections Director Rob Coffman of discrimination and retaliation, along with election law violations. The State Board of Elections investigated an allegation of vote-buying and Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill announced he would not pursue prosecution. The county board of election, with Sutton presiding, also investigated a number of alleged violations and cleared Coffman of wrongdoing. As a separate matter, they looked into allegations of inappropriate behavior towards staff and decided to take no action. In May, the NC Appeals Court upheld a lower-court ruling that three former employees were not entitled to whistleblower protections when they brought complaints against Coffman.

“I’m proud that we were able to work through some difficult times,” Sutton said. “I’m proud that we were able to show citizens of Forsyth County we were lookout out for their rights in terms of opening up more opportunities to vote. I’m proud we have employees in this office who know their job, who are serious about their job and who are well trained. That’s going to help a lot as this new board comes on.”

Sutton went on to call Coffman “an excellent director.”

Dills said he enjoyed working with members of the other party. Last year, he tried unsuccessfully to reduce hours and locations of early voting.

“I’m not for eliminating early voting, but I think there’s a sweet spot,” he said. “There were many precincts that were sitting idle during the hours and days of early voting. It’s been somewhat politicized in the past with the Democratic Party thinking that more early voting is better for them and conservatives thinking that less is better for them. But I think there’s a balance that’s just right for voters and not good or bad for either party.”

Flatow said he and Dills are good friends, but they hold different political beliefs. The two retiring board members like try to rile each other. But Flatow said he has serious concerns about voter suppression under Republican control.

“Look at voter ID in Raleigh,” he said after the meeting.

“It’s clearly an effort to suppress the votes of students, the elderly and minorities, who have more difficulty getting to the polls. The cutback that we anticipate in early voting, it will have the same effect on the same people. It will create more difficulty on Election Day going back to the those long lines. During my time on the board, things went extremely smoothly. Election days were smooth and we had very little fraud if any.”

Cumbie said he expects the NC General Assembly, also controlled by the Republicans, to determine whether hours are reduced, while the local elections board makes its mark through changes to the location of early-voting sites.

“If you were involved last year in the debates and discussion on early voting you would see that there were a number of areas in the county that were not covered with early voting and other areas were covered,” Cumbie said. “What you’re going to see is that it’s more evenly covered.” “As Republicans, all we want is to make sure that we have fair and open elections and that everybody has the opportunity top vote that wants to vote,” he added.