Protest appeal halts seating of new commissioners 

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An Election Day nail-biter and countywide recount confirmed New Hanover County Commissioner-Elect Rob Zapple’s election to the board, but neither Zapple nor fellow commissioner-elect Skip Watkins can get to work until the North Carolina State Board of Elections handles an appeal of an elections protest alleging improper influence in one precinct on Election Day.

The scheduled seating of Zapple and Watkins during a Dec. 1 meeting, when the board is legally required to select a new chair and vice chair, is delayed until the appeal is heard Dec. 9. The terms of commissioners Tom Wolfe and Brian Berger will be extended until their successors can be seated, and the board must select a chair and vice chair from current members during the Dec. 1 meeting, said county attorney Wanda Copley in a Nov. 24 email to commissioners.

Zapple said he is patiently waiting to officially assume his responsibilities.

“All I know how to do is follow the process, step by step, and trust that the process will play itself out. So far, it has,” Zapple said. “I’m confident when the state board looks at this, they will dismiss it the same way that the county did, and from there, we’ll be able to move on and get to work.”

The protest, filed by John Christian Anderson Nov. 18 and dismissed by the New Hanover County Board of Elections Nov. 20, describes possible improper influence of voters and questionable actions by the chief judge at the Williston Middle School precinct as grounds to hold a new election for the commissioners contest, or disqualify all votes cast in the Williston precinct.

Anderson’s stated concern began on election night, when he says he observed chief judges from all county precincts delivering ballots through the front door of the elections office — except the chief judge from Williston Middle School, whom he says he observed delivering ballots through the back door an hour later than the other judges. Anderson later contacted Williston judge Adam Rogers, who told him that blue sample ballots distributed by the New Hanover County Democratic Party were observed in some voting enclosures at Williston on Election Day. Those sample ballots, Anderson alleged, could have inappropriately swayed voters.

The county elections board questioned Rogers and Williston chief judge Sornatha Fulford about the sample ballots during the meeting. Both confirmed they discovered the situation that afternoon and immediately cleared sample ballots from enclosures.

Chair John Ferrante and secretary Marlene Mitchell voted to dismiss the protest, while board member Tannis Nelson said she wanted to hear more from precinct officials during an official hearing on the protest.

“What concerns me is, no one can assure me that these ballots were never left in the voting enclosure when the voter left that enclosure,” Nelson said.

Ferrante said information provided by Rogers and Fulford put the protest in context, motivating his decision to dismiss it. He questioned Anderson’s motivation to file a protest over events he did not directly witness, at a precinct where he did not vote.

“He didn’t observe anything firsthand. He had no credible observations, just suppositions,” Ferrante said.

Anderson, who angrily left the county board’s meeting when he was denied an opportunity to speak, filed a notice of intent to appeal the protest with the state board of elections Nov. 21.

Spokesperson Josh Lawson said the state board also expects to hear elections protest appeals from Sampson and Forsyth counties.

“These are not uncommon,” he said.

Anderson described himself as a friend of Republican candidate for county commission Dr. Derrick Hickey, who held a slight advantage over Zapple on election night until the last precinct, Williston, reported around midnight.

Anderson additionally filed an incident report, still under review by the state and local boards of elections and county staff, about the presence of absentee ballots and other proprietary information from overseas voters who cast votes electronically on the county’s public email server. Anyone can access the public server from the county government center.

Elections supervisor Derek Bowens said overseas voters who submit ballots electronically are notified that some of their voter confidentiality could be compromised.

The ballots were primarily cast by deployed military members and their families, Anderson said. He discovered the information while searching email correspondence between elections staff and board members discussing the incidents described in his protest.

Anderson said even if his protest did not capture the concern of the elections board, he is relieved his efforts removed the voters’ proprietary information from the public server.

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