News: CJ Exclusives

Wake County GOP calls for removal of elections board chief

Chairman Charles Hellwig says partisan social media activity of Democratic chair Andy Penry shows he can't adjudicate issues fairly

State elections board Chairman Andy Penry presides over the Oct. 17 meeting of the board. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
State elections board Chairman Andy Penry presides over the Oct. 17 meeting of the board. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

The chairman of the Wake County Republican Party has filed a complaint with the Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement alleging Chairman Andy Penry, a Democrat, has broken the law. The complaint demands Penry’s removal from office.

The complaint comes not only as the board has refused to certify the Rev. Mark Harris, a Republican, as the winner in the 9th U.S. Congressional District race against Democrat Dan McCready. It also occurs at a time the General Assembly is working under a tight, court-ordered deadline to replace the current board with a new structure.

In a Wednesday, Nov. 28, letter to Gov. Roy Cooper and Kim Strach, executive director of the state elections board, Charles Hellwig said Penry has attacked and denigrated Republicans on social media, violating laws barring partisan behavior by board members.

Hellwig said Penry “must recuse himself from any investigation of his apparent misdeeds and must recuse himself from any other actions until this investigation is complete.”

The letter also mentioned the state board’s “lack of transparency regarding important election certification” as further reason to act swiftly to remove Penry from office, “and replace him with a fair-minded individual who will act in the public interest and not show favoritism towards any party or clique.”

The certification matter apparently refers to the state board’s refusal on Tuesday to certify the 9th Congressional District contest between Harris and McCready. All counties in the 9th District had certified their results, showing Harris leading by 905 votes. McCready has conceded to Harris. The board certified all other congressional races statewide.

Board Vice Chairman Joshua Malcolm, also a Democrat, objected to certifying the results during the board meeting.

“I am not going to turn a blind eye to what took place to the best of my understanding, which has been ongoing for a number of years, and which has been repeatedly referred to the United States attorney and the district attorneys to clean up. Those things have not taken place,” he said. He did not specify what he was alleging.

Hellwig said by openly favoring one political side on his Twitter account, Penry acted well outside his role as a neutral official. The partisan behavior casts doubt on the fair and accurate enforcement of elections and ethics laws.

Hellwig cited state law saying:

“No person while serving on the State Board shall … (3) Make written or oral statements intended for general distribution or dissemination to the public at large supporting or opposing the nomination or election of one or more clearly identified candidates for public office. (4) Make written or oral statements intended for general distribution or dissemination to the public at large supporting or opposing the passage of one or more clearly identified referendum or ballot issue proposals.”

Hellwig said state board staff routinely recommends removing individuals from boards who make partisan statements. It recently removed a county elections board member elections for that reason.

He may have been referring to Cornelia Cree, a Republican former member of the Haywood County Board of Elections. The state board alerted her a false comment about Democrats she made in September on her Facebook account might have violated the same law Hellwig cited in pointing out Penry’s partisan behavior.

Cree’s potential removal from office was on the state board’s Oct. 17 agenda, but she resigned before that.

Hellwig said Penry has continuously and blatantly ignored laws proscribing partisan behavior of elections boards members. His Twitter account “expresses clear public animus towards multiple declared and likely candidates who have appeared on North Carolina’s ballots, clear public disapproval of multiple ballot initiatives that have appeared on the 2018 ballot for North Carolina voters, and ample public disgust with anyone who does not share his partisan Democrat views.”

Because of his actions, there can be no trust “he will work in good faith to oversee elections, rule on ethics opinions, or otherwise conduct public business without favor towards his political ends,” Hellwig said.

Hellwig included samples of Penry’s Twitter posts in his letter:

  • Telling a Republican voter his beliefs were “a bad reason to vote for a crazy man,” referring to President Donald Trump, a declared candidate for the 2020 election.
  • Telling the president he is “completely insane, not to mention heartless.”
  • Attacking the National Republican Congressional Committee, which had 13 candidates on the ballot this year. He falsely implied the NRCC had not commented about the impending arrival of Hurricane Florence, though it had.
  • Mocking 2nd District U.S. Rep. George Holding’s physical appearance. Congressman Holding was on the ballot in 2018 in the Second Congressional District.
  • Stating that the president needs a “diaper change.”
  • Multiple statements arguing against a ballot referendum regarding the State Board of Elections.
  • Calling the president a “despicable human being.”
  • Attacking and mocking many Republican elected officials.
  • “Liking” tweets attacking ballot referenda despite guidance from the State Board staff on the appropriateness of “likes.”
  • “Liking” tweets attacking the Republican-led legislature.
  • Attacking former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who has explored running for office again.
  • Comparing Republican voters to “true believers in Scientology.”
  • Repeatedly attacking Democratic U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, stating he would be a terrible presidential nominee.