- Monday, 23 December 2019
- Written by Karl Merritt
Editor's Note: On Dec. 20, The North Carolina Board of Elections approved making Smith Recreation Center an early voting site for the 2020 primary.
My wife and I recently watched a movie titled “The American President.” Michael Douglas plays the role of President Andrew Shepherd. In a press briefing near the end of the movie, Douglas makes this statement regarding his reelection opponent, Sen. Bob Rumson, played by Richard Dreyfuss: “Whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who to blame.” This statement is from a movie, but it is true in real life today. However, to fear, I would add anger.
The happenings in our time that demonstrate the truth of this approach are numerous. One is the push to make Smith Recreation Center an early voting site during the 2020 primary. The Cumberland County Board of Elections was unable to, as required by law, unanimously approve this proposal. All three Democratic members — Floyd W. Johnson Jr., Irene Grimes, Helen Nelson — voted in favor, while the two Republicans voted in opposition. Lacking a unanimous vote for approval, the matter must go before the State Board of Elections for a decision. That board has a majority Democratic membership, and only a majority vote is required to approve the Smith Recreation Center proposal.
In this case, the argument made by proponents of Smith Recreation as a site is that the surrounding area is home to many elderly citizens, convenient for voting by students at Fayetteville State University and would encourage voting by university students. This argument summary is based on comments made by citizens who spoke at a meeting of the County Board of Elections on Nov. 12.
Now consider the response of many Smith proponents when making it an early voting site for a primary was rejected by the two Republican members of the Board — Linda Devore and Bobby Swilley. There was an immediate rush to generate fear and anger while blaming Republicans for supposed unfair treatment of black citizens.
An example of this fear, anger and blaming approach shows through in a statement attributed to Val Applewhite. It appears in an article titled, “Vote site fight: Should early voting be held next door to Fayetteville State University?” by Paul Woolverton. He writes: “Val Applewhite, a prominent local Democrat and former Fayetteville City Council member, said on Facebook that she thinks Republicans voted against the Smith Recreation site in an effort to prevent Democrats from voting.”
Then the following comments were made by Floyd W. Johnson Jr., chairman of the County Board of Elections, during an exchange with Linda Devore when discussing consistency in voting procedures as recorded in the Nov. 12 Board meeting minutes: “Polling sites primarily in African-American communities have been closed to save money, or the turnout is too low, so they combine polling sites. To me, that is a form of voter suppression. I believe it is a template to suppress the African-American voters. That is fact.”
Simply screaming “voter suppression” and blaming Republicans is typical employment of fear, anger and blaming in pursuit of political advantage and power. The unfair and destructive results of this tactic are compounded by the routinely accompanying misinformation and refusal to honestly consider the facts that support the position being questioned.
In the Smith Recreation situation, some speakers in the Nov. 12 meeting were clearly under the impression that Smith had been an early voting site for primaries in past presidential elections. Smith has never been an early site for a presidential primary. The only time it was an early site for a primary was in 2014. That was due to 2013 legislation that reduced the early voting period from 17 to 10 days. Terri Robertson, director of the Cumberland County Board of Elections, explained that Smith was added that year due to the reduced days and expected resulting need for relief at the North Regional Library site. The 2013 legislation was repealed, and the early voting timeframe returned to 17 days. That negated the need for Smith as a primary early voting site. What happened here points to sound reasoning and not to voter suppression.
Another bit of misinformation raised by some speakers was that Cross Creek 13, the precinct for which Smith Recreation Center is the polling place, was being closed. The minutes reflect the following: Secretary Devore was recognized to make a comment of clarification. Because several public commenters mentioned this, there is no proposal or discussion before this board to close CC13. It has never been a consideration. There are 77 precincts in this county, and they will all be open on election days.
My observation is that most of the fear and anger production, along with blaming, is done on social media, especially Facebook. Not surprisingly, I have seen nothing on Facebook from proponents of Smith as a primary early voting site correcting these two points of misinformation.
In 2014, when Smith was an early primary site, 362 votes were cast early. As of Dec. 12, 2019, 51 of those voters were no longer registered, leaving 311. Voters in the 311 came from 54 different precincts. Only 10 of the 54 had six or more votes cast; most of the others had one or two. The distance from Smith to the nearest primary early voting site, Board of Elections at 227 Fountainhead Lane, is 2.5 miles. Of the 10 precincts from which most early voters came to Smith in 2014, following are the polling places that are less than 2.5 miles from Smith, along with the number of voters and distance: Cross Creek 5, 18/1.1; CC16, 88/.9; CC17, 19/1.9. Smith is Cross Creek 13 and had 24 early voters in 2014. This says 149 votes came from the Murchison Road area that appears to be the basis of the call for Smith being a primary early voting site. For good measure, add another 25 to allow for any low turnout precincts in the area that I did not include here. At the $20,000 minimum estimated cost to operate an early voting site, that is $115 per voter.
One can make the argument that 2014 was not a presidential election year as 2020 will be. That is a fair point. Look at the 2016 primary. In an article titled, “Last day of early voting brings lines and skateboarding voters,” Paul Woolverton writes that Terri Robertson said preliminary figures indicated 18,539 votes were cast in early voting for the March 15 primary. That was 31% of the 60,098 total votes cast in that primary. The four precincts that I contend make up the focus area for pursuit of early voting at Smith cast a total of 2,516 votes in that primary. Assuming 31% is a good early vote approximation across the board, 780 votes would be cast from those four precincts.
Jeff Womble, associate vice chancellor of communications at Fayetteville State University, stated that approximately 1,400 students live on campus at the university. A table at www.census.gov labelled “Table 2. Reported Voting and Registration, by Race, Hispanic Origin, Sex, and Age: November 2018” indicates that 45.7% of black college students 18-24 years old register to vote and do so at a 31% rate. Applying this math to the 1,400 students indicates 434 students might vote. Applying the 31% early vote percentage yields 135.
Altogether, approximately 915 early votes might be expected from the four focus area precincts. At $20,000, that is $21.86 per voter. Assume the six sites used in 2016 each cost the high of $30,000. The total of $180,000 divided by 18,539 is $9.71. That is less than half the average for operating Smith at the low-end cost. Granted, only four precincts are used in these computations. That seems reasonable since the stated aim is to address the perceived needs of that specific area.
Distance between early voting sights should also come into play. The average distance between the six sites that are normally used is 12.21 miles, while the shortest is between Cliffdale Recreation Center and the Board of Elections at 6.2 miles. If Smith Recreation Center is made an early voting site, it will only be 2.5 miles from the Board of Elections, where focus-area citizens could vote early. That is less than half the distance between the two closest sites and just 20% of the average.
Regarding convenience, a person may take a 16-minute city bus ride from the Murchison Road side of Fayetteville State to 505 Franklin St. downtown and then walk 0.3 miles to the Board of Elections for early voting. A bus ride directly to the Board of Elections is 32 minutes.
The picture here is one of misinformation that is not widely and forthrightly corrected by those who initially contribute to forming it: accusations of black voter suppression not supported by facts or reason; focusing on a small segment of the population when, in this case, equal treatment of all should be the aim; disregarding the high financial cost of the proposed change; not recognizing the inequity of having one site so much closer to another than is the case with others; by declining use of city buses, calling for greater convenience than seems necessary.
Finally, this singular focus will very possibly conflict with the intent, if not the letter, of recently passed legislation. During the 2016 primary, in these four precincts, a total of 2,516 ballots were cast: 205 by Republicans, 2,301 by Democrats, and 10 by others. Having Smith Recreation Center as an early voting site during the primary would clearly favor Democrats and a primarily black population. Senate Bill 683/SL 2019-239, 163-227.6(b) speaks to voting site selection and ends with “... that the use of the sites chosen will not unfairly favor any party, racial or ethnic group, or candidate.”
Given all that is presented here, I do not see a reasonable case for making Smith Recreation a primary early voting site. I am finishing this column on Dec. 13, 2019. It is very possible the N.C. Board of Elections will render a decision before this column is published. Whether the board’s decision comes before or after publication of this column, examining their decision in light of what is said here will be a worthwhile edeavor. The aim of that endeavor should be to examine the decision based on facts and reason as opposed to emotion and political manipulation (fear, anger, blaming). Remember the warning given by Michael Douglas in his role as President Andrew Shepherd.
- Tuesday, 10 December 2019
- Written by Karl Merritt
Watching all the problems that threaten the continued existence of America but go unsolved has brought me close to a state of despair. At times, our situation seems completely hopeless. In several columns, I have contended that the primary cause of our troubled condition is due to a turning from God and the ways of God. For me, that remains the primary cause.
However, I recently read an observation that further explains, as a society, our seeming inability to successfully address the simplest of problems. Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers are authors of a book titled, “I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening).” At one point, they reflect on an experience during their podcast, Pantsuit Politics. Holland is a Democrat and Silvers is a Republican. They discuss politics. When discussing how best to achieve productive discussion of issues, they emphasize the importance of grace. They write: “Grace isn’t rolling over or acquiescing to those who have completely different values than we do. It is simply seeing our shared connections and acknowledging each other’s human dignity so that we can continue moving forward as a country.”
They go on to say, “Grace permeates most of our conversations with each other on the podcast — so much so that listeners often don’t even recognize our disagreements because it doesn’t feel like fighting.”
However, at one point, they decided to experiment with a different format. This format would make their differences more apparent. In actuality, they decided to debate one another. Over time, the debates shifted in tone. This quote describes the course of these debates: “However, as we continued, we began to occupy our predefined roles as a Democrat and a Republican. Beth defended the role of private industry in energy production. Sarah argued for an increased role for the federal government in environmental regulations. We bickered about the power and authority of state and local governments. We danced around our shared interests only to fall back into our conflicts over profit motivation and government corruption.
“Slowly but surely you could hear us begin to become skeptical of each other’s motives.”
The writers come to this conclusion: “In the end, what we realized is that debates aren’t problem-solving. They are dramatized events filled with manufactured conflict. We weren’t trying to find a solution that would make both sides happy. We were arguing that we were a better choice to solve the problem.”
The conclusion reached by Hollard and Silvers regarding debates is absolutely true; one only has to look at what is happening in America to know that their conclusion is astoundingly true. Start with a situation happening in Fayetteville. For months, Mayor Mitch Colvin and others have been highlighting alleged overwhelming opposition to construction of the North Carolina Civil War & Reconstruction History Center in our city. A public hearing regarding this matter was, at the urging of Mayor Colvin, held in the Council Chamber on Nov. 14. I attended the hearing but sat in an overflow room because attendance was substantial.
The mayor opened the hearing by explaining the meeting flow, rules for speakers and for general conduct. In my estimation, what followed was a very civil debate. Speakers shared their positions relating to the project. There were no questions allowed to be directed to speakers, no audience participation that would have provided for measuring the impact of what was presented by speakers. Further, there was no allowance for questioning facts or construction of arguments presented by speakers.
Regarding that meeting, a Nov. 24 Fayetteville Observer article titled, “Readers debate Civil War history center,” reported: “… around 300 people came to a public forum for the N.C. Civil War & Reconstruction History Center. Thirty-nine people spoke in favor of the center, five were against and four were neutral.”
Beyond this, a Nov. 16 Fayetteville Observer editorial titled “Our View: Public vote on Civil War center should not be ruled out” raised a possible action that, in my thinking, highlights the uselessness of debates in solving problems or deciding difficult issues. That editorial refers to a call by one speaker, Nero B. Coleman, for a referendum on the History Center. That is, let the voters decide the fate of this project. The Observer’s position is that a referendum “should not be taken off the table.”
Given how little attention the general public gives to a matter of this kind, while being influenced by emotion vice thoughtful examination of facts, a referendum would appear ill-advised. It would be like having a jury decide the fate of an accused person based on hearing 15 minutes of 25 hours of testimony. In a referendum, people would act based on having heard limited debate points, many of which would probably be misinformation.
As for me, I left the meeting impressed with most of the speaker presentations, but not sensing a coming together of citizens around some shared values and beliefs, some shared vision as to what is good for us as a city, state and even a nation. No, it was a matter of one group seeking to out-point the other.
Because that was the case, even though it was crystal clear, as The Observer reported, that the number of speakers who supported this project substantially outnumbered those who did not, the matter is still not settled. The battle for which group will control the fate of this project goes on. The fact of the battle going on is confirmed by what appears to be serious consideration of a referendum. This is what debate produces; ongoing battles that divide people into competing groups. No problems are solved, most people lose and a few win — for a moment.
If this local situation does not offer confirmation that debate is useless in solving problems, consider what is happening in the current impeachment inquiry. I watched the first day of public hearings being conducted by the House Intelligence Committee. That first day, I watched straight through all of it. The second day and beyond, I had to watch in 15 to 20 minute increments. That is, I would watch for those few minutes, take a break and come back for a bit more. That was the case because it was all debate, people trying to accrue points with the public. Like with the meeting at City Hall, I did not sense these politicians coming together around some shared values and beliefs, some shared vision, as to what is good for us as a country. It was a debate, and the destructive cost to this nation just keeps going up while no positive end is anywhere in sight.
Thankfully, these two experiences are not the end of the story. On a rainy and dreary Friday night, Nov. 15, I made my way to a meeting called by Councilwoman Tisha Waddell, District 3. Waddell’s purpose was to discuss several topics with citizens of her district and others who might be interested. It was a small group. Among the topics discussed were the “Build A Better Murchison” project, storm water management, sidewalks, street resurfacing and The North Carolina Civil War & Reconstruction History Center. Very capable individuals addressed the topics and answered questions regarding each. Clearly, by her comments, Councilwoman Waddell was well-informed relative to every topic.
The information flow and factual presentations were encouraging. Even more encouraging was the tone of the meeting. Councilwoman Waddell opened by reminding all of us that when the meeting was over, we would still be neighbors. Her use of “neighbor” clearly conveyed far more than living near one another. The message I received was that being neighbors demands that we give due consideration to others in our decision-making. It was not simply that she said it, but the way she said it. There was a ring of sincerity, a convincing call for us to rise above scoring debate points and focus on finding a mutually beneficial way forward. The vast majority of the people in the room appeared to make that shift.
My hope, my prayer, is that more and more Americans will recognize that we are neighbors and take hold of the grace that will move us from useless debate to productive discourse.