Patrick Gannon: Election officials warned about social media posts

By Patrick Gannon

Syndicated columnist

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RALEIGH — Employees and appointed members of North Carolina’s 100 county boards of elections should be mindful when they log onto Facebook pages, Twitter and other social media sites.

The State Board of Elections is watching, and “liking” a candidate on Facebook could cost them their positions.

Board of elections members and staff, of course, are tasked with ensuring that elections are run fairly and impartially. Any bias or perceived bias of staffers or board members can undermine public opinion of integrity in elections. With all the talk about requiring voters to present IDs at the polls starting in 2016, election integrity has perhaps never been more at the forefront.

So Josh Howard, State Board of Elections chairman, recently sent a memo to the 100 county boards warning that Facebook “likes” and similar actions on social media could land them in hot water, if the actions indicate political bias. The five-member state board has stressed that it will strictly enforce a state law that bars elections board members and staffers from making written or oral statements intended for the public at large that support or oppose candidates.

Howard’s memo also suggests that members of elections boards in the 100 counties should review their histories of social media posts and “take any action to cure any perception of bias the posts might cast over their official actions.”

Social media has already burned plenty of athletes (see Johnny Manziel) and politicians (see Anthony Weiner). In North Carolina earlier this year, the state board reprimanded Madison County Board of Elections member Jerry Wallin after his Facebook page showed support or opposition to political candidates. The state board also required him to remove any posts from Facebook and other social media sites that could be “reasonably viewed as endorsing or opposing political candidates.”

Howard’s memo cites a recent U.S. Court of Appeals decision in the case Bland v. Roberts. The court found that “liking” a candidate’s campaign page “communicates the user’s approval of the candidate.” “In this way, it is the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard, which the Supreme Court has held is substantive speech,” the court said. The appeals court also said that “clicking the ‘like’ button literally causes to be published the statement that the User ‘likes’ something, which is itself a substantive statement.”

Howard’s memo said elections workers “should know that they engage in political speech via social media at their peril.”

What the state board is saying is that for the same reason that reporters who cover politics shouldn’t put campaign signs up in their yards, those responsible for fair and accurate elections shouldn’t outwardly show their political stripes.

Because they conduct elections and count ballots, and it just doesn’t look right.