State sets precedent by removing Butner from office

Published 3:16 pm Thursday, October 15, 2015

RALEIGH — In a first-of-its-kind decision, the state removed Mac Butner from the Rowan County Board of Elections Thursday because of partisan and racially tinged Facebook activity.

The State Board of Elections narrowly voted, by a 3-2 count, to dismiss Butner after a lengthy analysis of Facebook posts that date back to 2013. It’s the first time anyone has been removed from a local elections board in North Carolina for social media comments. Butner was appointed in July of this year and was elected chairman unanimously by members of the Rowan elections board.

Butner didn’t appear in person at a Thursday meeting of the state elections board. Instead, he sent a three sentence letter.

“Since my appointment to the Rowan County Board of Elections, I have not violated any parameter or law regarding my conduct as a board member or chairman of the board,” the letter states. “Due to my recent heart and foot surgeries, I am not able to respond to the state board in a proper manner that I wish. I will be happy to respond in a more detailed manner when I have fully recovered from my medical issues.”

Rowan County Elections Director Nancy Evans — called by the state board during its meeting — said Butner had served in an unbiased manner during his term as chairman.

State elections board members, however, did not focus on Butner’s performance in office when choosing to remove him. Members of the state board criticized Butner’s Facebook comments about blacks, questioned his affiliation with conservative Facebook pages and wondered aloud why he hadn’t deleted the comments sooner. A 2013 Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Bland v. Roberts was used as a guide to the Butner’s dismissal. The decision equates “liking” a Facebook page to displaying a political yard sign.

North Carolina Elections Chairman Josh Howard made the motion to remove Butner, citing Facebook “likes” of incumbent elected officials and racially charged Facebook posts.

“If the public doesn’t have confidence in the inclusiveness of a county chair, then that pretty much impedes the mission of the agency,” Howard said. “The job of the county chair is to preserve public confidence in the administration of elections. No one who reads these things will feel (Butner) is qualified to do that.”

By voting to remove Butner, Howard said the State Board of Elections was setting a precedent for future cases.

“Social media is a new thing,” Howard said. “It’s new for our board, and how to regulate that is very difficult. There’s a balancing test in anyone’s right to exercise their first amendment privileges.”

Butner can challenge his removal from office in court. It’s not clear whether Butner intends to challenge the decision. He did not return requests for comment on Thursday.

During the State Board of Elections’ meeting, Howard and other board members said Butner’s posts were too explicit to read publicly.

“Gee they are all black,” Butner said in a post about the Moral Monday Movement. “I guess the white folk could not get off because they were too busy working being productive good citizens.”

Another post from Butner includes a Confederate flag picture and states “Bout time to start up the fighting again and rid us of these damn yankee invaders! God Bless the Confederate States of America!”

Nearly all of the comments in question occurred before Butner was appointed to the Rowan County Board of Elections. Some posts are the same ones that nearly got Butner removed from the Rowan County Housing Authority Board in 2014. Instead of being recalled from the housing board, Butner let his term expire after county commissioners decided he wasn’t guilty of discrimination.

State Elections Board Member James Baker laid out the most extensive argument for not removing Butner. Baker, one of two who voted not to remove Butner, said the controversial Facebook comments were eventually removed. One controversial Twitter comment hadn’t been removed. However, Baker pointed out the last post on Butner’s Twitter account was in 2013.

“The only thing we can say about Mr. Butner is that he didn’t take down his Facebook account quickly enough and he’s not closed out his Twitter account that go back to 2013,” Baker said.

Baker played devil’s advocate to some of his own arguments. He said the potential for future discrimination must be considered even if Butner had done a good job in office.

The fact that Butner’s name was mistakenly submitted originally was only briefly discussed before the removal vote. In an original submission, the Rowan County Republican Party submitted less than the required number of names for appointment to the local board of elections. The State Board of Elections later received a final list from the Rowan County Republican Party with Butner as the No. 1 recommendation. State Board of Elections spokesman Joshua Lawson said Republican officials at one point tried to change the priority rankings, but it was too late.

However, Baker said the state board could have appointed Butner regardless of his priority level.

“Even though there was an error, I don’t know that it affects his legitimate status,” Baker said.

The State Elections Board will next look to find a replacement for Butner. Rowan County Republican officials will submit two names to the state Republican Party. Final approval comes from the State Elections Board. Other names submitted with Butner’s earlier this summer included Nancy Holshouser and Tommy John Costantino.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.