MONTREAT — Eight people registered to vote in Montreat do not appear to be residents of the town and cannot participate in Tuesday’s election, the Buncombe County Board of Elections has decided.
County elections director Trena Parker told Carolina Public Press on Friday that the board conducted a hearing on 17 challenges and found enough documentary evidence to take action against eight of them.
At issue is whether they qualify to vote based on their residency in the eastern Buncombe County town which is home to just a few hundred people. Most of those in question belong to families who own property in Montreat, but may not actually live there for enough of the year to count it as their residence for voting purposes.
The eight will have 10 days to challenge the board’s decision and may cast provisional ballots in Tuesday’s elections, which would only count if they won their appeals.
Several of those affected had already voted, Parker said, but elections officials can pull and set aside their early and mail-in absentee ballots ahead of the election.
One Montreat resident, Joe Standaert, issued all 17 challenges. Although his wife Mary Standaert is a member of the Town Council, he told CPP on Friday that she’s not currently up for re-election and his action wasn’t motivated by issues in town government, but by concern about improper registrations.
Factions that either support or oppose to the current council’s policies, including plans for a new town hall and replacement of an aging bridge, have sharply divided the community.
Standaert said he thinks the opposition faction has encouraged people who are only seasonal residents to register and vote, though they may have done so through bad information rather than any intentional deception.
“This group is so organized, that they are probably going to win this thing anyway,” he said.
Standaert said he and other concerned Montreat residents initially talked with Parker about the situation, but the elections office isn’t empowered to investigate or act without formal challenges to the eligibility of specific voters.
Parker said she’s noted a big surge in voter registrations from Montreat this year. Early and mail-in absentee voting has also been heavy.
Once Standaert issued his challenges, Parker’s office notified the challenged voters 10 days prior to the board’s hearing, so that they could respond. Each board decision was based on individual factors, she said, but all of them hinged on how persuasive the documentation in favor or against their residency status was in each case.
Parker said no deeper investigation is currently examining whether those who organized the voter registration effort broke any laws, but she didn’t rule such a probe down the road.
The issues dividing town members do not appear to be partisan in nature and partisan politics appeared to play no role in the election board’s action.
Like all election boards in North Carolina, the Buncombe board is comprised of two members of the governor’s party and one from the party of the second-largest recipient of votes in the last gubernatorial election – so two Republicans and one Democrat.
Although two of the 17 votes on the challenges came on 2-1 decisions, Parker those votes split the two Republicans board members. The other 15 decisions were unanimous.