In an official protest filed with the Buncombe County Board of Elections, Republican Christina Kelley G. Merrill alleges that hundreds of votes cast by residents of Warren Wilson College were illegally counted and should be struck from the certified results. The board will hold a hearing later today, Nov. 28, at 5 p.m. to consider the charges.
The certified results currently show Democrat Ellen Frost winning a seat on the board in District 2 with a 13-vote edge over Merrill. During that Nov. 16 certification process, Merrill and her supporters tried unsuccessfully to halt the vote count, citing irregularities at Warren Wilson.
The college 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.
However, in the May primary and for most of the early voting period, officials from the Buncombe County Department of Election Services administered District 1 ballots to all residents of the school based on its mailing address of 701 Warren Wilson Road. In the final days leading up to the Nov. 6 election, the department worked with the school and students to determine the proper residences and corresponding ballots for voters. During that time, many Warren Wilson residents who participated in early voting were forced to fill out provisional ballots. Others whose dormitories are in District 2 but were originally given District 1 ballots were told they'd have to vote again for their ballots to count in the district races.
Merrill's written protest, filed with the Board of Elections Nov. 20 and co-signed by her attorney, William Peaslee, asserts that the process was legally flawed.
"The Board obtained a list of students from the college and, based upon the addresses (dorms) in the list, determined which district and precinct each of the provisional voter resided. … The list provided by the college is unsworn and without any affirmation as to its integrity," it reads. "The Board erred in using unsworn, unreliable information in attempting to determine the residency of individuals for voting purposes."
The solution pushed by Merrill in the protest is for the alleged "illegal votes" to be "removed from the official count." Newsweek recently ranked Warren Wilson the most liberal college in the country, so it's likely that canceling the ballots from its residents would help Merrill make up her 13-vote deficit.
Peaslee currently has his own law practice in Cary; he previously served as the chief of staff of the North Carolina Republican Party.
Meanwhile, Frost has also sought legal counsel and expressed concerns over District 2 Warren Wilson residents whose votes weren't counted because they were given the District 1 ballot. She's also expressed frustration that election officials failed to determine earlier that many of the school's residents lived in District 2, noting that it prevented candidates from campaigning at the college and working to get out their votes.
The situation has roused confusion and anger among some students and faculty, who have charged that the redistricting, combined with the confusing acts by local election officials, amounts to voter suppression.
"The way to remedy this is not to throw out students' votes. That's wrong," asserts Sarah Zambon, a lawyer and Democratic activist who's been volunteering for Frost.
"Do we want elected officials who will resort to pushing for students' ballots to be thrown out?" she adds. "This is about making sure those students have the right to vote."
Meanwhile, a District 2 recount requested by Merrill started today and should be completed by Friday. Unless the board acts this evening to change course, the recount will consist of the same ballots included in the certified results that give Frost the lead.
If Frost remains on top, Democrats will control four of the board's seven seats. The new board members are scheduled to be sworn in on Dec. 3.
Download a copy of the complete protest Merrill filed with the Board of Elections here.
UPDATE at 10:52 on Nov. 28: The Buncombe County Board of Elections voted 2–1 to deny Merrill's protest. Read more on that here.