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Email records shed some light on what happened with CFCC's polling site

Buffer zone for Health Sciences building at CFCC
Buffer zone for Health Sciences building at CFCC

At the end of October, New Hanover County Democratic Party Chair Jill Hopman voiced concerns about being blindsided by changes to Cape Fear Community College’s polling site for the 2023 Election. WHQR dug into public email records to try and figure out what happened.

The changes were based on CFCC’s ‘No Solicitation Policy’ passed by the Board of Trustees in July 2023. This policy meant that electioneers could no longer put up tents or chairs for their volunteers without the expressed approval of President Jim Morton.

Volunteers from all parties are allowed to electioneer at the CFCC site, greeting voters and offering information about the candidates they support. However, it’s located in a precinct that leans heavily Democratic, and historically the county Democratic party has invested more time and energy at the site than Republicans.

Related: NHC Dems say they were surprised by CFCC’s new polling site policy

While the college’s policy was passed over the summer, Hopman was only notified of the change by the New Hanover County Board of Elections (BOE) the evening before early voting opened at the CFCC location — throwing off plans at one of the Democratic party’s key sites.

Morton and CFCC’s event and meeting manager, Shawn Breedlove, did not end up allowing Hopman’s team to set up these items outside of the site’s buffer zone. This zone is a place where party volunteers cannot electioneer.

The Democratic party pivoted to a nearby location, but was left wondering why the change had been sprung of them and what it means for future elections.

Email records show CFCC contacted the GOP first

Emails acquired by WHQR through public records requests from the BOE and CFCC show that Breedlove’s first point of contact on these changes was not to the New Hanover County Board of Elections (BOE) but to the Vice Chair of the New Hanover County GOP (NHCGOP) on October 16.

Breedlove sent a message entitled “Election” to Rick Wilkins’ personal email, writing, “Thanks for your help in finding this information!” What followed was Breedlove recopying CFCC’s ‘No Solicitation Policy’ with the following underlined:

'No Solicitation' Policy
'No Solicitation' Policy

A spokesperson for CFCC said no further emails between Wilkins and Breedlove exist, and Wilkins didn’t respond to a request for comment.

However, later on October 16, Breedlove did contact Jenna Dahlgren, the county’s elections logistics coordinator, after his exchange with Wilkins, writing, “After our call earlier I was thinking about the upcoming election. It is my understanding that CFCC had some issues with electioneers on the college property. Mainly them harassing students and blocking the entrance to the building. Is there a way that you can communicate our policy out to the groups that will likely be present for the elections located at CFCC? Myself and our security team will enforce this but I would prefer to get out ahead of it some before the elections begin.”

Breedlove included in his message to Dahlgren the same policy language with the underlined section that he discussed with Wilkins.

Later that evening, Julius Rothlein, the election integrity committee coordinator for the NHCGOP, sent an email at 10 p.m. to New Hanover County Board of Elections Director Rae Hunter-Havens also sending her CFCC’s policy, asking her, “Please clarify if the Republican and Democrat Paryties [sic] are restricted from Electioneering at the CFCC-Downtown based on the policy we have received from Shawn Breedlove below? I note that CFCC-Downtown is not listed on the NHC BOE website as one of the polling place that has any electioneering restrictions. The policy below suggests that CFCC-Downtown should be added as one of the polling places that restrict Electioneering. Please advise.”

Rothlein was correct in that CFCC was not listed among the six locations, last updated October 2, like the Moose Lodge and Port City Community Church, that restrict electioneering.

Ten days later

After October 16, the next set of emails between Breedlove and Hunter-Havens starts on October 26, two days before CFCC opened as an early voting site.

Hunter-Havens said the lapse in communication was due to her office reaching out to the legal team at the State Board of Elections and the county attorney’s office to “determine whether these recent changes [i.e. the no solicitation policy] were legally permissible given our current usage agreement and state law.”

Adam Steele, the associate general counsel for the State Board of Elections, gave nuanced advice to Hunter-Havens, saying that the 2023-2024 agreement between CFCC and the BOE, signed by CFCC Vice President Christina Greene on June 28, 2023 and Hunter-Havens on July 10, 2023, does “at least contemplate that electioneers will be there and have materials with them,” adding that he could probably argue that “tents and tables are part of a group’s election-related activities as well, but that likely depends on the facts on the ground. I think it would be a fair restriction that those items not be set up in a way that would damage the property, which looks to be the main concern from CFCC regarding temporary structures and signs.”

Steele added, “The electioneering area, even if not designated as a specific area, eventually has to have an outer limit. Wherever you and CFCC agree is that outer limit, if people try to electioneer beyond that area, then I do not see why the community college could not enforce their anti-solicitation policy.”

He also said that, based on state law, whoever is in charge of the voting site does have the ability to enforce “peace and good order” if the host (i.e. CFCC) feels felt their “constituents [felt] harassed or threatened.”

On October 26, Breedlove emailed Hunter-Havens the policy again and wrote, “As we discussed on the phone, I am most concerned about our students trying to get to class and people dropping off kids at the preschool.”

On this same date, Hunter-Havens sent a response to Rothlein’s request from October 16, telling him that the facility will allow for electioneering outside of the buffer zone, and said, “We respectfully request that you ask those individuals who will be electioneering on behalf of the NHCGOP to refrain from unsolicited contact with students and voters or impeding their access into the building,” reiterating the request of Breedlove.

Hunter-Havens sent the same message to the NHC Democratic Party the following day, October 27, shortly after Rothlein asked if these directions were sent to them as well.

“It is not clear from the October 26, 2023 email we received that the same admonition was sent to the Democrat Party [sic],” Rothlein wrote.

She also sent a follow-up message to Breedlove, saying “For reference, I have attached electioneering information that we previously shared with the local political party chairs in 2022 about electioneering at CFCC sites. Debi Causey [who worked for CFCC and was Breedlove’s predecessor] facilitated the collection of this information so that we could clearly communicate these expectations to the local party chairs.”

Records show that Breedlove only initiated communications with the NHCGOP and the BOE, not the county Democratic party. The college maintains that it was BOE’s responsibility to inform the Democratic party of the no solicitation policy.

Hunter-Havens added that, in 2022, local parties were permitted to set up one table and tent per party in the electioneering area after Causey discussed this issue with her supervisor. They did ask that these were broken down each day, too.

But Breedlove insisted to Hunter-Havens that those items would not be allowed for 2023.

Past complaints

Hunter-Havens asked if the President or one his designees could approve this, as the college’s policy allows.

“It may be more orderly and organized if electioneers used tables and chairs. And those items very well could be part of the electioneer’s electioneering activities: tents and umbrellas could have candidate branding on them, and tables could be used to hold flyers or other campaign paraphernalia,” she wrote.

Breedlove responded, “Because of the proximity to the childcare drop off and the students entering the building, as well as the issues that were experienced in the past, we will not allow tents, tables, etc on the college property. The electioneers are welcome to stand on the sidewalk and electioneer from there. Because this is a smaller election I don't foresee any issues happening but I am preparing for future larger elections. I realize this may be a change from how things were done in the past so I plan to be at the health science building regularly to address any issues.”

Breedlove also told Hopman that she could electioneer from the sidewalk.

Hunter-Havens did confirm that her office had received complaints about the CFCC site over the last two election cycles.

She said, “There were several incident reports submitted regarding electioneering as well as phone calls from students who reported that they felt like they were being harassed by electioneers.”

Hunter-Havens added that over the last several years, these reports were for both the Democratic and Republican electioneering representatives and that they have also received complaints not relating to “a partisan group but rather to a specific incident or person.”

Hopman said after the 2023 election cycle that she hasn’t received any updates from the BOE except that “it is working on this issue for 2024.”

She went on to say that “Neither a political party, nor the BOE, should be blindsided again by last-minute changes or irrational restrictions to electioneering the night before a poll site opens.”

Hopman added that she agreed with the legal advice given to the BOE — and that “lawful electioneering activity is undoubtedly protected by general statute and the First Amendment, which would outweigh the new CFCC policy.”

As for the past incident reports Hopman said, “While there has been an occasional complaint about over-zealous volunteers at CFCC — like there are at almost every site, during every cycle — there has never been an issue with property damage, harassment or threats, disruption of classes, or hindrance of entry to the building, which appears to be the implied justification for this new policy. That, however, seems far more like an excuse, if not an outright fearmongering farce, to further impede the political process and electioneering activity in a heavily Democrat, downtown area [...].”

CFCC declined to respond on what the parties can expect at this site for Election 2024 — or provide further comment on the matter.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR