News (USA)

Elections board weighs dumping official over bigoted posts

Elections board weighs dumping official over bigoted posts
Malcolm Butner
Malcolm Butner

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A county elections official in North Carolina will have a chance to defend himself Thursday as he faces removal over racially tinged Facebook posts praising the Confederacy and suggesting that black citizens who participated in protests against state policies weren’t “productive good citizens” with jobs.

The State Board of Elections was scheduled to consider the fate of Rowan County Elections Chairman Malcolm “Mac” Butner.

In addition to his comments about the protesters, Butner’s social media accounts also expressed support for individual candidates, which is prohibited under state law. The law does not prohibit elections officials from stating their ideological beliefs, but the state elections board could decide that an official has gone too far if he or she has made potentially offensive statements on social media.

Butner was nominated by the state’s Republican Party chairman and unanimously approved by the state elections board. But a spokeswoman for the state GOP said in July that his nomination was a mistake to begin with, and she urged him to resign amid the controversy.

For more than a year, the state board has alerted county elections officials to a federal appeals court ruling that social media commentary can compromise efforts to project fairness in election decisions. County elections board members “should know that they engage in political speech via social media at their peril when it comes to this board’s enforcement” of state law, the state board’s policy says. The law may require local board members “to review their previous social media posts and take action to cure any perception of bias the posts might cast over their official actions.”

The state board has never removed an elections official over their social media postings, said Josh Lawson, the board’s legal adviser.

Butner made national news last year for Facebook postings extolling the Confederacy, denouncing gays and lesbians, and blasting demonstrators protesting the priorities of Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory.

On Facebook, Butner displayed a photo taken at one demonstration in Raleigh and noted the black participants. “I GUESS THE WHITE FOLK COULD NOT GET OFF BECAUSE THEY WERE TOO BUSY BEING PRODUCTIVE GOOD CITIZENS,” Butner wrote in 2013.

Butner also commented on Twitter about Oprah Winfrey receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom: “@Oprah WELL YOU GOT YOUR MOF THANKS TO YOUR BLACK PREZ AND A LOT OF WHITE WOMEN. CAN YOU EVER DO ANYTHING ON YOUR OWN?”

Butner was chairman of a local housing agency at the time and a public housing resident complained anonymously to a U.S. Housing and Urban Development official in Greensboro. Butner did not seek reappointment when his term ended in August 2014.

But the postings, along with expressions of support for individual political candidates, remained on Butner’s Facebook and Twitter accounts after he joined the Rowan elections board this summer. The state board will consider both issues as it considers whether Butner should continue in the job, Lawson said.

Only one local election official has been removed by the state board in the past five years. That 2013 case involved a Beaufort County official who publicly endorsed a candidate during a local Tea Party meeting.

The state board last year dropped a decision about whether to remove a Madison County elections official who “liked” candidates on Facebook, because it had no policy governing expression on social media. That case prompted them to develop the current policy statement on social media use, Lawson said.

Butner did not return messages this week seeking comment. He told the state board he hasn’t done anything wrong but couldn’t respond fully due to medical problems. State officials offered to postpone the hearing if Butner could promise a date he’d appear to present his side of the issue, Lawson said.

Butner told The Associated Press in July he wouldn’t resign under any circumstances. “I’m the victim,” he said then. “The problem is, in this society, you can’t express your First Amendment rights. You have to be politically correct.”

Butner resigned his seat on the state Republican Party’s executive committee in June to join the three-member county elections board.

Under state law, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the state parties each nominate a list of names for appointment to the three-member elections boards in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. The state board then votes to appoint the parties’ nominees to the local boards, with the majority in every county going to whichever party then controls the governor’s mansion — currently the Republicans.

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