BOONE — A July letter drafted by a Watauga County Board of Elections member garnered criticism from some representatives of the Appalachian State University Student Government Association, and the student group is calling for the board member to resign from his position.
Board member Eric Eller sent a letter to Appalachian State Police Chief Andy Stephenson on July 8 to “address the issue of potential security threats in the upcoming election cycle.” Eller wrote to Stephenson to inquire if the campus police department could guarantee that election activities on campus could be “conducted safely and securely in the face of potential escalating protests designed to disrupt such activities.”
The July 8 letter references a list of demands published two days prior by Black at App State — a collective of university students and alumni that emerged during the summer to denounce racial injustice. The group of “concerned Black Mountaineers” sent a list of demands to Chancellor Sheri Everts, university administration, Student Affairs personnel and the university board of trustees.
The demands letter stated that collective participants would take nonviolent actions that would disrupt university operations and escalate until demands were met. Eller said during a Sept. 8 board of elections meeting that the concerns he expressed in his letter were issues that had been raised to him by voters.
Eller added that he didn’t state his opinion with the letter, but rather was requesting information. In his letter to Stephenson, Eller inquired if the department could guarantee the physical safety of all voters and poll workers at a polling site on campus; that those waiting in line to vote will not be subjected to any protest or other disruptive activities so that no voter feels threatened, intimidated or harassed; that access to any polling site on campus will remain open and accessible to all voters during all poll hours; and that any and all election activities will be able to proceed without disruption or delay while ensuring safety for equipment or ballots on campus.
“Even nonviolent actions or protests may disrupt election activities at any polling site on campus, discourage voters from voting and constitute a violation of state and federal election laws, not to mention constitute a violation of the civil rights of voters attempting to use the polling site,” stated Eller in his letter to Stephenson.
In a statement to the Watauga Democrat, Eller said that his four queries to Stephenson “strike to the very heart of certain core duties of the board of elections.” These core values include ensuring voters can go to polls without fear, that voters can cast their ballot without feeling harassed or intimidated, that all voters and poll workers have unfettered access to the polls and that the electorate can rely on the outcome of any election being fair, accurate and based solely on the tallies of all ballots cast by eligible voters.
Eller stated in the letter to Stephenson that a portion of the Black at App State demands declared intention to draw media attention to their activities. The Black at App State demands stated, “We will not hesitate to contact the state-wide media sources to publicize our movement and our demands and bring to light the treatment of black students, faculty and staff at Appalachian State University.”
Disrupting the election process would draw substantial media attention — potentially including national media attention — and such publicity could attract outside organizations with activities that may be “nonviolent,” Eller’s letter stated.
“Obviously, Concerned Black Mountaineers have a Constitutional right to peacefully protest any university or governmental policy they feel is unjust. But their right to protest does not include the right to disrupt or interfere with the election process, or otherwise violate the civil rights of voters, poll workers and the public at large,” Eller stated in the letter.
Stephenson said he returned Eller’s inquiry with a phone call in which he told Eller that the police department didn’t have any indication that there would be an attempt to disrupt the election process at a campus polling site. Stephenson added that he also indicated to Eller that laws pertaining to the voting process at polling sites would be enforced on campus just as they would be at other polling sites.
Adam Zebzda, the SGA director of external affairs, said members of SGA were made aware of Eller’s email in late August. He said that since then, a collaborative effort developed to address the situation.
“We believe it is warranted that the board issue a formal apology and Mr. Eller immediately resigns from his position,” Zebzda said. “Additionally, we look forward to having an in-depth discussion with the board to address Mr. Eller’s rhetoric and to try rebuilding the trust that was eroded due to recent actions.”
Board of elections member Matt Walpole said during the Sept. 8 meeting that members had received “lengthy emails” from at least two SGA students with concerns about Eller’s letter.
Walpole explained that the SGA representatives perceived the letter to be on behalf of the board. Eller said during the Sept. 8 meeting that the letter was from him as an individual, and not on behalf of the board. Walpole presented a separate letter to the board to address the student concerns that would be on behalf of the board. The Sept. 8 letter stated that the July 8 letter “was not authorized by the board of elections.”
The Sept. 8 letter also mentions that Eller’s letter references “our board” and “our agenda” as well as was signed by Eller as a member of the Watauga Board of Elections, and that a reader could have inferred that Eller’s letter was written on behalf of the board.
“After reviewing the email in question, it was clear a racist narrative and misinformation were pushed by Mr. Eller in his official capacity as a board of elections member,” Zebzda said. “In an attempt to label Black students as a threat to election security, Mr. Eller betrayed the public’s trust and abused his power. Equally concerning was the apparent lack of condemnation by the board as they were aware of the email and its contents since July 8. These factors contribute to a growing threat of voter suppression and intimidation, specifically targeted at Black voters.”
Eller told the Watauga Democrat that the characterization of his letter as racist was “absurd.” Additionally, he said a protest of any sort — peaceful or otherwise — that is designed to disrupt university operations when voting is being conducted in a university building will “necessarily disrupt the voting process.”
“That is true regardless of the group engaging in the protest or their objectives,” Eller said. “Any protest near a polling site deters certain voters from exercising their Constitutional right to vote.”
Eller added that he did not ask Stephenson to provide a law enforcement presence around any polling place or imply that he should do so. Additionally, he said that he’s consistently taken a stance while on the Watauga County Board of Elections that, in the absence of an emergency situation, there should not be a law enforcement presence at the polls as to not deter voters from exercising their right to vote.
Board members Nancy Owen and Marvin Williamsen stated that they had not seen the July 8 letter prior to receiving the emails from the students.
“When this letter was written, we were working together on plans for holding an election during a pandemic,” the Sept. 8 letter stated. “To some of us, it seemed the better course not to publicize a letter with which we disagreed, but rather to move on. We knew that the writer did not speak for the board, but we failed to make that clear to the public we serve. Avoiding conflict then has allowed for misunderstanding, suspicion and pain now. Our neglect was wrong, and we apologize.”
The Sept. 8 letter adds that the board recognizes and supports the Constitutional right of peaceful protest, and does not believe the exercise of Constitutional rights threatens the electoral process.
“Nothing in (the Black at App State) letter suggests disruption of the 2020 election, and nothing even hints at harm to any voter or poll worker,” stated the Sept. 8 letter.
The Sept. 8 letter was approved by the board with a 4-1 vote; Eller opposed.
Zebzda said that board Chair Jane Ann Hodges invited him and others involved to publicly address the matter during the board’s public comment portion of the meeting. He said that the SGA members invited respectfully declined the invitation and favored having a “semi-private meeting for constructive discussion instead.”
Four SGA members co-signed a statement on Sept. 14 demanding a formal and public apology from Eller for his letter to Stephenson as well as called for his immediate resignation from the board as “Eller has proven that he is not fit to be a public servant and should not have the privilege of representing our community.” The four signees — Michael Davis (student body president), Gaby Romero (SGA chief of staff), Korbin Cummings (SGA director of diversity) and inclusion and Zebzda — stated that Eller betrayed the public’s trust by “spreading misinformation, fear- mongering and attempting to disenfranchise voters.”
The four SGA members stated in the Sept. 14 letter that they accepted the board’s Sept. 8 letter, but that “the time it has taken for it to occur has been extremely disappointing.”
Hodges did not respond to questions as of presstime. Read the three letters in full at www.wataugademocrat.com.