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Patrick Gannon: A win for election integrity

RALEIGH – Republicans seeking to require photo identification for North Carolina voters uttered the words “election integrity” and “integrity of the ballot box” countless times in recent years.

Protecting election integrity – making sure only eligible voters get ballots – was the main talking point used to support controversial legislation requiring voters to show IDs. Court challenges to that legislation are still pending.

But it’s not just the integrity of individual voters that should be of concern to anyone who values fair and honest elections. The integrity of those who oversee the elections process is even more important.

A stark reminder of that came last week, as the State Board of Elections considered a disturbing case involving the then-chairman of the Rowan County elections board.

The state board voted 3-2 to boot Malcolm “Mac” Butner Jr., a Republican, from his local board, at least in part because of derogatory and inflammatory posts he made about African-Americans, immigrants and the LGBT community on social media before the state board – which didn’t know about the posts at the time – appointed him to his position this summer.

In a state board hearing last week, referring to statements Butner made online, State Board Chairman Joshua Howard said: “Some of the things in here are so unfortunate that I don’t want to describe them.”

I will here.

On Facebook, Butner commented on a photograph of Moral Monday protesters at the General Assembly. He wrote: “Gee, they are all black. I guess the white folk could not get off because they were too busy working being productive good citizens.” In a separate post, Butner wrote: “To hell with the lesbos, queers, liberals and baby killers.”

In a Twitter post responding to Oprah Winfrey winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Butner wrote: “Well you got your MOF (moment of fame) thanks to your black prez and lots of white women. Can you ever do anything on your own?”

In another post, Butner wrote that the “primary difference between the leaders of the Confederate States of America and the Union is that Confederate leaders were godly gentlemen and the Union folks were not.”

You get the idea. If Butner posts those comments on social media for all to see, imagine what he must say in the privacy of his home or in the company of his closest bigoted friends.

State board members who voted for Butner’s removal pointed out that county board members exercise authority over election rules and regulations. They certify election results, conduct recounts, approve or deny provisional ballots and determine early voting sites and times, among other important duties.

“Do you know of anyone else in Rowan County that plays a more important role for ensuring the integrity of the election process other than Mac Butner as the chairman?” asked state board member Joshua Malcolm, who voted to oust Butner.

But county board members also are the face of elections in their areas, and simply the perception that Butner might act with bias in his decision-making is enough to make him unfit for that important role.

Howard, the state board chairman, said the job of a county chairman is to “preserve public confidence in the administration of elections.”

“And no one who reads these things could feel that he is qualified for that,” he added.

Butner didn’t show up to defend himself at the board hearing, and he didn’t make himself available on the phone to answer questions. His only response to state board members as they considered removing him was a short letter stating that he hadn’t violated “any parameter or law” while serving as a county board member.

That might be true, but the perception that elections in his county might not be conducted with utmost integrity was still there.

Not anymore.

Gannon writes columns for Capitol Press Association.

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