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Mallett still dogged by accusations of violating campaign laws

EAST SPENCER — Mayor Barbara Mallett still hasn’t technically won the November mayoral election, but on Dec. 7 she took the oath of office for another term in the position.

With allegations of campaign law violations pending, the Rowan County Board of Elections can’t issue a certificate of election to Mallett or declare her the winner.

Rhonda Kerns, who challenged Mallett in the 2015 elections and lost by a steep margin, initially filed a complaint that Mallett escorted voters into a polling location and breached a campaign buffer zone. In a November hearing, the Rowan County Board of Elections found Mallet broke campaign laws, but the violations weren’t enough to affect East Spencer’s election outcome. As a result, the board moved to dismiss allegations against Mallett. Kerns immediately appealed the ruling. Now, Mallett’s re-election is in the hands of the North Carolina Board of Elections.

Rowan County Elections Director Nancy Evans said the town shouldn’t have sworn Mallett into another term in office. Similarly, none of the re-elected alderman should’ve been sworn into office. Because of a miscommunication, the Rowan County Board of Elections hadn’t declared results of East Spencer’s Board of Aldermen election final.

East Spencer Town Manager David Jaynes characterized the swearing-in ceremony as an honest mistake, saying candidates would normally already have certification letters in hand.

Aldermen election results won’t change. The Rowan County Board of Elections finalized aldermen results Tuesday afternoon, with  incumbents Curtis Cowan, Deloris High and John Noble being re-elected. Although it’s a steep margin to climb, there’s still a possibility, though minuscule, Kerns can be named East Spencer mayor, according to the State Board of Elections.

In the November election, Mallett received 182 votes — nearly 74 percent of the votes cast in the race for East Spencer mayor. Kerns received 39 votes. Candidate Brint Polk finished third with 24 votes. There was also one write-in vote for mayor.

The State Board of Elections could uphold Rowan’s decision — to dismiss the case — reverse the local decision, or order a new election, said General Counsel Josh Lawson. An entirely new election, however, is uncommon and comes with a high burden to prove wrongdoing, according to Lawson. And Evans points out that Kerns didn’t specifically request a new election in her complaint.

Rowan County’s final order found Mallett violated a candidate buffer zone in place at East Spencer’s single polling location multiple times. Mallett’s actions, however, didn’t “cast doubt” on the election results, according to the Rowan County Board of Elections ruling.

It’s unclear exactly when the state might make a final decision on the East Spencer complaint. Lawson said the State Board of Elections is scheduled to meet Jan. 5. The state board, however, prefers to consolidate all local election complaints into one meeting, according to Evans. Transcripts from all local appeals aren’t complete, Lawson said on Monday. The State Board of Elections chairman would need to decide whether to separate East Spencer from other complaints for early consideration.

For now, there’s technically no issue with Mallett continuing to serve as mayor, according to Lawson and Evans. The same was true with all three re-elected aldermen before the Rowan County Board of Elections approved results on Tuesday. Evans said the situation would be more complicated if a challenger had been sworn into office when the election results hadn’t been finalized.

Evans said incumbents typically continue serving in situations where election results aren’t finalized by the first meeting in December, when East Spencer candidates are typically sworn into office.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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