As yet uncounted votes from Warren Wilson College residents could determine which political party has a majority of members on the new Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
With all 32 precincts in commission District 2 reporting, the unofficial Nov. 6 results showed an extremely narrow lead for Republicans Mike Fryar (25.15 percent with 19,904 votes) and Christina Kelley G. Merrill (25.03 percent with 19,806 votes).
Under the new district election system, the winning candidate in each district gains a four-year term; the second-place finisher gets two years on the board.
The unofficial District 2 results have Democrats Ellen Frost (24.92 percent with 19,719 votes) and incumbent Carol Peterson (24.90 percent with 19,701 votes) in third and fourth place. That means there's a 203 vote gap between the first and fourth place finisher. Merrill leads Frost in second place by only 87 votes.
However, it might be weeks before the final results are known. And party control of the seven-member board could hang in the balance. Democrats Holly Jones and Brownie Newman won in District 1. Republicans Joe Belcher and David King won District 3. (Democratic incumbent David Gantt won another term as board chair).
A confusing situation (For background on this issue, see the previous Xpress post, "Ballots in Question for 1,000 Registered Voters at Warren Wilson College").
Approximately 1,052 provisional ballots and at least 500 absentee ballots cast in Buncombe County aren't included in the Nov. 6 unofficial results, according to Trena Parker, director of the Buncombe County Election Services Department. Warren Wilson students were forced to fill out 154 of those provisional ballots during early voting after the department determined that the previous registration address for 1,000 residents of the school was no longer valid. The school was divided between districts 1 and 2 last year by Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly; the dividing line is Warren Wilson Road, which cuts through the middle of campus. Parker said she's not sure how many of the 154 provisional ballots were filled out by Warren Wilson residents of District 2 versus District 1.
Meanwhile, the fate of an additional 54 ballots filled out by Warren Wilson residents registered at 701 Warren Wilson Road who participated in early voting before Nov. 1 remains unclear. They were given the District 1 ballot, which corresponded with the school's mailing address and historical voting address, according to Parker. Later, after the board of elections determined that some of those students actually resided in dormitories on the north side of Warren Wilson Road, the department decided that they should have received the District 2 ballots.
In the following days, the department tried to contact the 54 voters by mail to give them the opportunity to vote again using the correct ballots, said Parker. However, she said there were "a few" voters that they were not able to contact because they couldn't determine their mailing addresses. At least one student was told via email by a department official that her original votes would be "canceled."
As of Nov. 8, Parker said only about 20 of the Warren Wilson residents contacted by the department have opted to vote again. She said they have until the votes are certified on Nov. 16 to submit their second absentee ballots. The votes for races on the original 54 ballots other than the county commissioner and Statehouse contests — those not affected by the address discrepancy, such as the presidential contest — would definitely be counted, Parker said.
However, she said it was unclear how many of them should have been given the District 2 ballot. The students who reside in District 2 and filled out the District 1 ballot may not have their votes for the county commissioner race counted if they do not submit a correct ballot by Nov. 16, said Parker. The final determination of whether to include those votes in the final tally will be made by the Board of Elections when it meets Nov. 16, she said.
Until then, Frost said she and Peterson are planning to "wait and see" what happens. Newsweek ranked Warren Wilson as the "most liberal college in the nation," and Frost said she's hopeful that the votes from its residents could help close the 87 vote gap between her and Merrill.
However, she adds that she's confused by the situation at the college, noting that she and the other District 2 candidates had every reason to assume its residents would all be voting in District 1 in the general election, as they did in the primary. If District 2 candidates had known that many of the school's residents would be voting in their race, they could've campaigned for their votes.
"I would've certainly met and engaged those voters, so they could get to know me." Frost said.
The confusing situation at the school has upset some students and faculty, who see it as an attempt to suppress their votes.
Parker said that by Election Day, the Election Services Department had worked with the school's administration to determine residents' dormitories and their proper voting locations and district ballots.
"Any of the students who showed up on Election Day did not have to vote provisionally," she said.
But Frost said she still finds the situation troubling.
"The students had to do a lot of heavy lifting to vote. I think at the end of the day my biggest concern is to ensure that nobody's rights were violated," she said. "If we were talking about a minority community, and this had happened, it'd be a whole different language. I think there might be more outcry."
Meanwhile, as he spent election night at Magnolias Raw Bar and Grill in downtown Asheville, Fryar celebrated his tentative first place finish. "It feels really good, I think I've worked really hard to get there," he said.
If the certified results on Nov. 16 show a margin of victory for either of the two winning candidates of 1 percent or less, the opposition can request a recount, which could take two weeks, according Parker.