County election board members must work as colleagues and not political rivals, the new Republican chairman of the State Board of Elections said Wednesday as recent local board dust-ups have led to allegations of partisanship and voter suppression.
Josh Howard addressed nearly 500 local elections board members, directors and staff at a statewide training seminar, the first since all 100 county boards came under GOP control this year after 20 years in Democratic hands. Republicans now hold 2-1 majorities in counties because Gov. Pat McCrory was elected.
But the division has gotten more attention in the past week as Democrats and civil rights groups are fuming over actions by Republican elections board members in Pasquotank and Watauga counties that could make it harder for college students to vote.
Video footage of part of the tension-filled Watauga County board meeting last week has received more than 28,000 views on the Internet.
Howard, a former federal prosecutor, urged the new board members to respect each other and the citizens who come before them.
"The real theme of the conference needs to be 'let's not have any more of our meetings show up on YouTube,'" Howard told the crowd.
"We've had some rough meetings over the transition period of the last few months. That's fine. That'll happen. That's part of change," he added, but "you are not partisan rivals. You're colleagues. And if you do your job right ... you might even become friends."
The Watauga County elections board voted last week to eliminate an early voting site and election-day polling precinct on the Appalachian State University campus.
The Pasquotank County board followed by prohibiting an Elizabeth City State University student from running for city council this fall, ruling his on-campus address couldn't be used to establish local residency. The local Republican Party now wants to challenge more voter registrations of students living on the historically black college campus.
Attorneys for the city council hopeful said late Tuesday they had appealed the ruling to the State Board of Elections, saying legal precedent made it clear that college students could use their on-campus address to establish residence and vote. "You can't treat college students differently from other voters," said Clare Barnett, an attorney with the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
Howard was reticent about his views on the decisions by the two county boards, saying in an interview later he didn't "want the state board from Raleigh to impose its will on local boards." Republicans hold three of the state board's five seats.
"We depend on local boards to know what's best for their local community," he added. "But I do hope ... board members and anybody that wants to speak on these topics is heard and not shut down."
He warned local election board members to keep their partisan views out of their board responsibilities: "Every one of you is out of politics now."
Democrats argue the local Republican moves are designed to discourage student voting, which tends to favor Democrats. The complaints align with accusations of discrimination and partisanship about a wide-ranging election overhaul bill McCrory signed into law last week.
The law, which is being challenged in court, would reduce the number of early-voting days by a week, end same-day registration during the early-voting period and in 2016 require voters to show photo identification before casting in-person ballots. College IDs won't qualify as voter identification.
The two-day training seminar included a session on the election omnibus bill and how it will be administered. Howard said he fully intends to carry out the law - at least those sections that are upheld.
The Forsyth County elections board voted Tuesday to table a proposal to place security officers at the county's early voting site. A proposal to eliminate an early-voting site at Winston-Salem State University won't be discussed until next year, the Winston-Salem Journal reported.