An administrator’s e-mail misstep has caused a political dust-up at Winston-Salem State University.
When the university’s interim vice chancellor for student affairs, Michelle Releford, got an e-mail message from a student about early voting for midterm elections in the county, with a request to forward it to the entire campus community, she did so. Without reading it first, a university spokeswoman says.
It turns out that portions of the e-mail encouraged students and faculty and staff members of the public university to vote for Democratic candidates. It also provided a link to the county Democratic Party’s Web page. “She didn’t look at it like she should have,” said Nancy Young, the spokeswoman.
Within a few hours on Monday, university officials sent out a retraction, asking students, professors, and staff members to disregard the first e-mail. In that follow-up message, administrators acknowledged that the original e-mail violated a North Carolina law against using university resources for political campaigning.
But representatives of the state Republican Party did not believe the retraction was enough and called for equal time. Feeling that they needed “to do something, even though it wasn’t the best thing,” Ms. Young said, the university sent out a campus-wide e-mail identical to the original message, but with promotional material from the GOP. Because that e-mail also violated state law, the university was forced to publish a retraction for the Republican-leaning message, too. “The second one was just as illegal as the first one,” Ms. Young said.
The Forsyth County Republican Party was still not satisfied. Nathan Tabor, party chairman, has called on the university to discipline the vice chancellor and to perform an audit of the university’s e-mail system to see if other partisan messages have been sent in the past. “The likelihood of it being just a one-time occurrence is slim to none,” Mr. Tabor said.
The Republican Party has also asked the Forsyth County Board of Elections to take Winston-Salem State University off its list of eight early-voting sites scheduled to open on October 25. Mr. Tabor said that voting sites need to be apolitical and that the university “has violated state law and has contributed in-kind” by sending promotional e-mails for both parties. “They have shown themselves to be politically active, which should make them ineligible,” he said.
The county’s elections director, Robert H. Coffman, said the university, which has been hosting early voting on its campus since 2004, simply provides a venue for voting. Closing the site will affect everyone in the surrounding community, he said, not just the university. “I’m confused on the logic on exactly who’s being punished,” he said.
The Forsyth County Democratic Party is pushing to keep the university voting site open. According to Cindy Burke, Democratic Party office manager, the voting site “doesn’t have anything to do with the students.” Ms. Burke said the party believes the e-mail “was all just an accident.”