The Establishment Strikes Back: Beaufort County edition

ncgopBeaufort County has become quite the microcosm for the civil war between the GOP establishment and The Tea Party.  We’ve written extensively about some of the controversies there previously on this site. 

This week we learned that Beaufort elections board member Delma Blinson had been removed from office by the state board of elections — thanks to a complaint filed by Beaufort resident William Buonanno.  The offense?  The board bought into Buonanno’s allegation that Blinson — who had spoken favorably at a local Tea Party event about Senate candidate Greg Brannon — was unfit to continue serving on the county board.

Josh Howard — the state board’s chairman — seemed to buy the arguments for Blinson’s removal.  Howard should relate to this kind of thing.  His dad — a long-serving federal judge with ties to the late Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms — manages to judge Democrats AND Republicans fairly from the bench.  Howard’s sister has previously worked for Helms and former senator Lauch Faircloth.  Howard, himself, worked for Ken Starr during the impeachment efforts against Bill Clinton.  He helped two of George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees get confirmed.  Using the logic employed by Howard, Buonanno and the board, Howard’s dad could be found unfit to continue presiding from the bench.  Howard, himself, could also be found unfit to continue serving on the elections board.

Blinson – the editor of The Beaufort Observer — is a fixture in local GOP and Tea Party activities in Beaufort.  This all got started back in July — when Blinson was chosen as one of two GOP members of the county board of elections, but was passed over by party leaders in Raleigh.  Tea Party leaders — such as county commissioners Stan Deatherage and Hood Richardson — pitched a fit, and Blinson was eventually seated on the local board. 

Now, to this Buonanno fellow.  According to county commissioner Richardson, Buonanno is a staunch member of the GOP establishment who likes to fight the Tea Party tooth-and-nail. 

After July’s uproar, Blinson SHOULD have been more careful.  At that point, he was — politically — a marked man and should have done a better job of watching his back.  I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Delma as part of this whole blogging thing.  My experience finds that he is a principled, straight arrow of a guy.  I believe that he would have given Satan a fair shake — if the Prince of Darkness decided to run for something in Beaufort County.

Any establishment type giggling over this because they think they’ve scored a victory over The Tea Party better wake up and smell the coffee.  I personally think they’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest.  Delma is not taking this thing lying down:

On October 17, 2013, acting as an individual expressing my opinion, I spoke up at a Beaufort Patriot TEA Party meeting in support of Greg Brannon for US Senate. I did not speak or act on behalf of or as a member of the Beaufort County Board of Elections. When the endorsement by the TEA Party of Greg Brannon was announced my name and participation were not mentioned. But for these actions, on December 20, 2013 the State Board of Elections retracted its appointment of me to the Beaufort County Board of Elections. It did so after a “kangaroo court” hearing that was obviously biased and unjust.

Here’s the problem as I see it: The State Board of Elections is running a sham as far as elections integrity is concerned. Every reasonably informed person who knows anything about elections administration knows two things: Those who oversee elections are political appointees—they get that position as a result of their political activities and virtually every one of them continues their political activity after being appointed in that they favor some candidates and disfavor others. That is simply the reality of the situation and everyone with knowledge of the system knows this.

The law dealing with this is clear. Elections officials may not “make written or oral statements for general distribution or dissemination to the public at large supporting or opposing the nomination of one or more clearly identified candidates for public office…” but they may do so as an “individual expression of opinion, support or opposition not intended for general public distribution…” That’s pretty straight-forward. There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with the statute. The problem comes in the way the State Board of Elections implements it.

The board pretends that election officials don’t have political preferences. The essence of their position is that there will be no perception of bias if election officials simply HIDE their positions. It’s as if the SBOE has re-written the state’s motto to say: “It will be if it seems to be.” The essence of their position is that if you hide the bias it does not exist. That’s absurd.

Consider an analogy. If we were to accept the SBOE reasoning and apply it to judges and prosecutors we would say that as long as a DA or judge does not talk about a conflict of interest they may have in a case before them that that makes them unbiased to try the case, even though they may be directly and personally involved in the case. For example, suppose the defendant in a case is a former business partner of the judge and the DA’s ex-spouse. Under the reasoning of the SBOE, as long as neither the judge or the DA talk publicly about the business associate or ex-spouse then the defendant got a fair trial. Hogwash!

The need is for the state to operate in accord with its motto: Fairness should BE, not seem to be.

A much better way to insure fairness, and the perception of fairness, is disclosure. Rather than follow a policy of enforced hiding of reality the policy should be one of putting reality out in public view for all to see.

In our illustration above, the judge would simply disclose that the defendant was a business associate with whom he had had a falling out. The DA would disclose that the defendant is an ex-spouse and then there should be a process by which the defendant can challenge the fitness of the judge/DA to serve in the case. And the adjudication of such challenges should be based on objective assessment of the alleged bias and a determination made not on whether the bias was expressed but rather on whether it had, or could reasonably be expected to have, an actual effect on the outcome of the proceeding.


This is really not a novel idea. Bias in judicial proceedings is an age-old issue. Can a white person sit on a jury that is trying a black defendant and still make a fair decision? Of course they can. And if a white defendant tried to claim that a black juror was biased then that defendant should have to show that the juror’s race had an actual effect on their decisions. Of course the same would be true of other classifications, such as gender, sexual preference, religion, or even cultural values etc.

I would contend that the qualification of both members does not turn on their support of the candidate’s opponent, but rather on the rational process used to assess the ballots. The application of the reasoning that a particular ballot is accepted and another rejected should be reviewable. And to be reviewable, the reasoning used to make the judgment must be disclosed. Such an open and transparent approach is much better than contending that one board member (who disclosed his preference) is less qualified than another who kept his secret.
You just cannot remove “politics” from elections. We would dare say that every election official has political favoritism. It is foolish to say that if that favoritism is hidden it does not exist.

Allow me to offer another example. Assume a candidate challenges the determination a 3-member board of elections made in ruling on the acceptance of a provisional ballot (one upon which there is dispute of its validity). Suppose two members of that board had worked for the candidate’s opponent in the election. One of those two did so openly, the other did so secretly. Now, which is more or less qualified to rule on those provisional ballots?

The Beaufort Tea Party’s chairman is also coming to Blinson’s defense.

As a side note, it’s interesting to see how quickly the state board acted on this.  It’s been nearly a year since they promised to audit the campaign finances of state senator Fletcher Hartsell (R) – a close ally of Robin Hayes, Pat McCrory and Thom Tillis.

Maybe the news media got lazy and missed reporting the findings of the audit.  Maybe the whole audit thing got swept under the table — good ol’ boys protecting another good ol’ boy.  Either one of those options is bad news for all of us.