Just before midnight on Tuesday, after lengthy debates and split votes on several agenda topics, Macon County Commissioner John Shearl introduced a resolution calling for state leaders to consider a change to how local board of education members are elected, at which point his fellow board members, Commissioner Danny Antoine and Commissioner Josh Young requested the discussion be tabled due to the fact that the majority of the county’s board of education members that would be affected by any change, were unable to attend Tuesday night’s meeting due to a mandatory conference.
According to Shearl, during the last election, Republicans were unable to follow the instructions listed on the ballot when voting for candidates for school board.
“We had two Republicans seek the school board seat. When the Republican Party sent out sample ballots —as you’re walking through the door, “Would you like a Democratic ballot or would you like a Republican ballot?”, “Oh I would like a Republican ballot.”, They had every person that ballot marked, including the school board. So when the people went in there that took a Republican ballot, they voted for every Republican that Macon GOP had placed on that sample ballot,” Shearl explained. “When those people ballot and they put it in the machine, it kicked it out. It was an unapproved ballot. The people had a choice, get a new ballot and start all over or have your vote not county for the school board race.”
Shearl then claimed that the majority of people who had their ballots flagged for voting incorrectly chose to not fill out a new ballot, which resulted in an unfair election outcome.
Despite making the statement that the issue impacted a significant amount of voters, altering the outcome of the election, according to Melanie Thibault, Director of the Board of Elections, there was some confusion for voters who were not reading the directions on the ballot before marking their choice, which resulted in the tabulator giving the voter a warning, however, after poll workers explained the issue, most chose to get a new ballot.
Over the last few years, the trend toward partisan school board elections in North Carolina has been gaining momentum, with Republicans leading the charge.
The history of school board elections in North Carolina reflects a bipartisan approach. Session Law 1967-Chapter 972 allowed for the direct election of school boards, with the choice of partisan or non-partisan elections. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-35(a) mandates that board members are not elected by party, emphasizing a non-partisan approach.
However, a growing number of local acts, particularly since 2010, have overridden this general rule, leading to a surge in partisan school board elections. As of March 2023, 42 out of 115 school boards in North Carolina now hold partisan races, marking a substantial increase from the 1 in 10 a decade ago.
Just this year, the Senate approved two bills in June 2023 that altered election rules for several school boards. House Bill 66, which passed in the House and is set to become law, changes four school board elections—Catawba County, Hickory City, Newton-Conover City, and Polk County—from nonpartisan to partisan. This shift means that candidates’ party affiliations will now appear on the ballot.
The shift towards partisan school board elections has predominantly been driven by Republican lawmakers, particularly in Republican-leaning counties. The legislative changes, often introduced through local bills affecting fewer than 15 counties, have steadily altered the composition of school boards over the past decade.
The move also comes at a time when unaffiliated voter registration has surged to over 35%, surpassing both Democrats (33%) and Republicans (30%), according to the latest data from the State Board of Elections.
Despite unaffiliated voters outnumbering both major parties in the state, the hyper-partisan nature of the races forces them to pick a side. Under non-partisan elections, unaffiliated candidates have historically had a fighting chance, aligning with the preference of a majority of voters in North Carolina. In these elections, voters focus on candidates’ qualifications, positions, and reputations rather than party affiliation.
For unaffiliated voters to appear on the ballot, they have to take the extra step of gathering thousands of signatures just to be able to appear on the ballot.
Macon County’s current Board of Education is comprised of five members and includes two Republicans, two unaffiliated voters, and one Democrat. While the official ballots given out on Election Day when voters cast their ballots do not identify specific parties for each candidate, the candidate’s party affiliation is public record. The Democrat currently on the board, Stephanie Laseter, was elected during the 2022 election which Shearl claimed for being his reason for seeking the change to make the board partisan. Laseter appeared on the ballot for the District 2 seat on the board and faced off against three Republican challengers, however, one of the names on the ballot, Tommy Cabe, the incumbent in the race, passed away prior to the election. Laseter was elected by a margin of just 187 votes. The two Republican candidates were separated by 649 votes and despite being deceased, Cabe received 1,860 votes. The position also secured 55 write-in votes.
Commissioners Antoine and Young said that while they may very well support the move, however, they did not want to consider something without the school board present.
“I don’t think this is a political issue, I think this sounds like an issue between the board of elections and basic understanding and how to follow instructions,” said Commissioner Young.
Expressing the frustration that had been visibly building during the meeting while being faced with opposition, Commissioner Shearl turned to Commissioner Young and asked what changed with his stance since private meetings they participated in, prior to Shearl and Antoine taking their oaths of office last November.
“Last November, at Commissioner Antoine’s house, before we were all sworn into office, we had many meetings about these very same things. Partisan School Boards. Redistricting the county. What has changed?” Commissioner Shearl confessed.
As Young began to respond to Shearl’s comments, noting the personal nature of his question, Commissioner Antoine interjected supporting Young in tabling the discussion as a “professional courtesy” to school board members not in attendance.
“It comes down to, as a professional courtesy, it’s not right in my eyes that we should be trying to vote without having a discussion with the board in question — the school board,” explained Commissioner Antoine.
Despite Antoine’s attempt to redirect the conversation, Shearl once again spoke directly to Commissioner Young saying, “We talked about this in depth.”
Commissioner Young responded denying Shearl’s claims.
“I don’t want you to put words in my mouth,” Young said. “I didn’t say anything about this. We had discussions, we had a lot of discussions. A lot of crazy conspiracy discussions that got thrown out there too and I am not supporting them either.”
After Shearl failed to gain support from any of his fellow commissioners regarding moving forward with the school board elections discussion, Commissioner Young implored county leaders to refocus efforts for the betterment of Macon County.
“Let me ask you all this. When are we going to take on something that actually matters for the people of Macon County?” Commissioner Young questioned. “All we are doing is playing in the weeds and it is under your [Chairman Higdon] direction. Let’s talk about building a school. Capital needs. You talk about not spending money at the middle school, but then you want to go to Main Street and that has nothing to do with the board. We sit on this board and contradict ourselves every day. If we are going to start calling someone out, let’s just call a spade a spade. Let’s get rid of our pet projects, and let’s worry about the county as a whole. I feel like what is happening right now is you guys have pet projects that you have set in meetings about, and no one on this board knew about them, then you come before the meeting and expect me to pass this or that. We had discussions for weeks and talked about everything, but you get hung up on political issues that have to do with other elected bodies, that is national politics you are driving into this community to divide us.”
As Chairman Higdon attempted to redirect the conversation to close out the meeting, Commissioner Shearl stood up from his seat and began to pack up his things and once again became confrontational toward County Manager Roland saying, “You like that, Manager? You look at me like that. With that smirk.”
While Shearl continued standing and packing up his belongings, Commissioner Higdon and Commissioner Young discussed ways to get things done more efficiently in the future. Commissioner Shearl continued making negative comments directed toward Roland, even after the meeting adjourned.
“Sitting over there with that smirk on his face. Arrogant. He wouldn’t be so arrogant if he knew what people said about him,” Shearl said while heading toward the exit. Attempting to diffuse the situation and redirect the conversation, Sheriff Brent Holbrooks responded to Shearl saying, “I’ll tell you what people say about him, that everything he does is for this county and the county employees.”
The next meeting of the Macon County Board is scheduled for December 12, 2023.