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The Columbus County elections board "met" by email. Does that violate public meetings law?

A close up on the temporary office sign for the Columbus County Board of Elections.
Nikolai Mather/WHQR
Last month, the Columbus County Board of Elections decided to cut down on one-stop voting locations via email.

On March 15th, the Columbus County Board of Elections made a crucial decision about the May primary via email — but didn’t notify the public first. WHQR spoke to Joseph Williams of the News Reporter in Whiteville about this potential violation of state laws regarding public notifications of official government meetings.

Nikolai Mather: Alright Joseph — last week, you published an article about this email exchange, which you said could constitute an emergency meeting. Tell us what happened.

Joseph Williams: Sure. So on Friday, March the 15th — canvass day — the Board of Elections was wrapping up the first primary that we had earlier this year. And after they finished up tallying all the election results, they moved on to establishing or voting on a one-stop plan for the second primary. When they voted on that plan, they approved a plan that included five one-stop locations, the same five one-stop locations that they included in the first primary.

But then later on that day, the elections director ended up getting a call from someone with the state. And that person from the state elections board let her know that they didn't have to include all five of those one-stop locations if they didn't want to. And so she shot an email to all five members of the Columbus County Board of Elections asking them to vote on a revised set of one-stop plans, this time with just one one-stop location.

NM: So why didn't the elections board just schedule another meeting?

JW: The way that it was explained to me by the elections director is kind of twofold. One of which is they were kind of on a deadline. So remember, canvass day was that Friday, March the 15th. She told me over the phone that day that March the 18th, that's when the one-stop plans were actually going to be due. So instead of having a hastily called meeting, she essentially heard from the state elections board officials that they could actually have an email meeting instead. She was just not under the impression that she would have to provide such a notice for a meeting. The other factor that is at play is that otherwise, if the board had gone ahead with the five one-stop locations – again, just for these second primary races – that would be a lot of locations, a lot of folks that they would have to pay. So really, she pitched this as a cost saving measure for the county as well.

NM: Definitely understandable. Yeah. But it's still also potentially legally problematic, right? Like, what's the law in North Carolina around Board of Elections meetings?

JW: In the case of emergency meetings, the media has to be notified immediately. And that's the word that's using the state statute immediately after the board members themselves have been notified. And we hadn't been notified that the board of elections would actually be meeting by email until I had called the elections director that Friday, March the 15th, to inquire about the results of the county canvass.

NM: Alright, Joseph, my last question: do you think the board is gonna see any recourse?

JW: I'm not sure what if anything they might do of their own volition. I know that when it comes to any meetings that might not have been publicly noticed, or [where] it's believed that they were improperly noticed or not noticed at all, that someone can bring a suit before the Superior Court to challenge actions that were taken in said meeting. But to my knowledge, no one has brought such a suit to Columbus County Superior Court as of yet. I'm not sure if anyone will.

In terms of the gravity of this … one of the things that I really appreciate about the News Reporter and the team that we work with is we really keep our nose to the grindstone when it comes to monitoring open meetings law and making sure that things are above board. If board members were to meet by email privately as they did on a regular basis, then there would be no way for the public to know about what's going on. That's why it's so important for meetings such as these to be properly noticed well in advance.

NM: Absolutely. And I can definitely attest to y'all's nose to the grindstone. Your work is phenomenal.

JW: Well, thank you so much, Nikolai. That means a lot.

NM: Yeah. And thank you for coming by! We really appreciate it.

JW: Absolutely. Thank you.

During a Columbus County Board of Elections meeting this week, chair Jeff Register apologized for the lack of notice, saying, “There was no intent to hide anything from anybody... But appearances matter.” Read more of Williams' coverage here.

Spokesperson Patrick Gannon of the North Carolina State Board of Elections shared the following statement with WHQR:

"State Board staff advised that a new early voting plan would need to be decided in a board meeting. It’s entirely possible that the county board misunderstood what they needed to do here, because we advised that there are different remote methods of conducting a meeting, such as by phone. And at the time, the county boards were working rapidly to prepare for a second primary right on the heels of canvassing the first primary, so any mistake in this regard is understandable."

WHQR has reached out to the Columbus County Board of Elections and will update with their response.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.