Students call for resignation of board of elections member

Moss Brennan and Abi Pepin

App State organizations are calling for the resignation of a Watauga County Board of Elections member after a letter sent to App State police garnered criticism and claims of suppressing Black voters. 

Board of elections member Eric Eller sent a letter to App State Police Chief Andy Stephenson in July addressing the “potential security threats in the upcoming election cycle” related to demands made by the Black at App State Collective — a group of students committed to fighting for Black students’ safety and equity. 

“Obviously, concerned Black Mountaineers have a Constitutional right to peacefully protest any university or governmental policy they feel is unjust,” Eller wrote. “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 wrote about the demands, written by Black at App State in July, that were addressed to Chancellor Sheri Everts, the App State administration and all Student Affairs personnel. The letter contains concerns regarding how the university handles student retention, health and wellbeing, campus culture, leadership and scholarships in relation to Black students.

In a statement to The Appalachian, Eller said he did not find the demands concerning, but rather the language letter sent with the demands. 

Eller said he was specifically concerned about Black at App State’s potential actions that could “disrupt all university operations and escalate until our demands are met.” 

“When voting is being conducted in a university building, then a protest of any sort — peaceful or otherwise — (is) designed to disrupt university operations in that building,” Eller said. “Any protest near a polling site deters certain voters from exercising their Constitutional right to vote.”

Eller said he never asked Stephenson to provide a law enforcement presence at a polling place.

“While on the Watauga County Board of Elections I have consistently taken the position that, in the absence of an emergency situation, there should not be a law enforcement presence at the polls specifically because that presence may tend to deter some voters from exercising their Constitutional right to vote,” Eller said. 

Stephenson said he saw no information indicating disruption of the election process on campus. 

“I told (Eller) that we had no information to indicate there would be any attempt to disrupt the election process at polling sites on campus, and also indicated that laws pertaining to the voting process at polling sites would be enforced on our campus just as they are at other polling sites,” Stephenson said. 

Korbin Cummings, a member of the collective, said the group was very troubled by the letter Eller sent. 

“We are demanding the immediate apology and resignation of Eric Eller for his violent rhetoric around Black students on Appalachian State’s Campus,” Cummings said. “The language and suggested actions were apparent attempts to suppress and criminalize Black voters.”

Adam Zebzda, App State Student Government Association director of external affairs, is also calling for an apology from Eller and his resignation. 

We cannot normalize attempts of voter suppression, nor the targeted weaponization of our electoral process,” Zebzda said. “Regardless of partisanship or opinion surrounding the use of Plemmons Student Union as a voting site, Mr. Eller’s narrative is indefensible as he attempted to claim Black students were a threat to election security and to the community’s civil rights.”

Eller said he has no intention of resigning. 

In mid-September, the Watauga County BOE responded to the concerns surrounding Eller’s letter, calling them “valid.”

According to a statement from the Watauga County BOE, “Nothing in (Black at App State’s) letter suggests disruption of the 2020 election, and nothing even hints at harm to any voter or poll worker.” 

The letter states that the board recognizes and supports the constitutional right to peacefully protest and, “does not believe the exercise of Constitutional rights threatens the electoral process.”

The board said it will continue to make voting accessible for Watauga County voters regardless of race, religion, age, gender or party affiliation.

Cummings said the collective is appreciative of the BOE’s statement, but said it is concerning that the response was so delayed.