NAACP chapter considering lawsuit against Cleveland County Board of Elections

The Cleveland County chapter of the NAACP is considering filing a lawsuit against the county board of elections after the board recently approved merging five Shelby election precincts into two.

On July 8, the election board voted 2-1 to merge Shelby 1, 2 and 3 into one precinct at Shelby City Park. The board voted unanimously to merge Shelby 6 and 7 at Holly Oak Park.

The merger will change the polling places for several thousand voters, but supporters of the changes say the new sites are larger, will have more parking space and will save money.

But the Rev. Dante Murphy, who heads the local NAACP chapter, believes the mergers will cause confusion among the elderly and make it harder for people to vote. Also, he sees the local merger as “part of a larger trend in our community and nation to suppress people’s right to vote.”

He made similar statements in a New York Times story about election law changes in the wake of a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that voided a key section of the Voting Rights Act.

The story, which appeared the day before the Cleveland County Elections Board meeting on July 8, pointed out that the board is an all-white body with two Republicans and one Democrat. The story said that when Murphy discusses the plan, he talks of “disenfranchisement” and “conspiracy.”

Murphy said his comments in the newspaper resulted in a “verbal reprimand” on July 8 from Elections Board Chairman Wayne King, who is a Republican.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been beaten down like that by a public official,” said Murphy, pastor of Shelby’s Shiloh Baptist Church. “It was so personal, and targeted at me. It was also degrading and punishing me for speaking out against a very vital issue. As an American, I have a right to voice my concerns, and it doesn’t call for a public bashing.”

Murphy said the point he tried to make in the interview was that people across the state and nation should “learn to stand up for justice and what is right for everybody.”

Murphy thinks the election board’s action and King’s comments have “outraged people.”

“There are two ways this battle will be fought – litigation and voter participation,” Murphy said. “This has nothing to do with party lines, race or gender. It’s about putting people in office to stand up for the people.”

Because of the NAACP’s possible lawsuit, King was guarded in his response. But he said he thinks it puts Cleveland County in a negative light.

An earlier elections board with a Democratic majority “merged several precincts,” said King, who said that the current mergers were not part of a Republican plot to suppress voters.

A former chairman of the Cleveland County Republican Party and former vice chairman of the state GOP, King is now deputy chief of staff for N.C. Rep. Mark Meadows of the 11th District. King said he’d gone out of his way to get public input on the merger plan, including holding two public forums that weren’t required. Also, he said the board had expanded early voting, adding two sites and an extra Saturday.

“The elections board is committed to doing what’s best for the voters of Cleveland County,” said King. “I’m willing and open to listen to people’s concerns, to talk one-on-one about how to make it easier for people to vote.”

Elections board member Doug Sharp, a Democrat, voted against the merger of Shelby 1, 2 and 3. He’d made a motion to merge Shelby 6 and 7 as an experiment because the current Shelby 6 will have to move anyway because of polling place renovations, but to delay action on the other three precincts until after the 2016 presidential election. The motion was not supported.

As interim executive director of the Cleveland Regional Chamber of Commerce, Sharp said, it’s hard to measure any negative effects of the New York Times article and a possible lawsuit.

“But I don’t see it as a favorable thing for the county,” he said. “It’s not the type of stuff you want out there.”