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State elections chair resigns after joke about cows, sex

Posted July 30, 2019 2:27 p.m. EDT
Updated July 31, 2019 7:01 p.m. EDT

— State Board of Elections Chairman Robert Cordle resigned Tuesday after he opened a statewide conference for hundreds of election officials Monday with a joke about cows and sex.

His resignation was effective immediately, and Gov. Roy Cooper accepted it, spokesman Ford Porter said in a brief statement late Tuesday.

Cordle's resignation means the board will soon have its fourth chair since early December, when another Cooper appointee resigned over political tweets.

The resignation comes at an important time: The board is slated to meet Thursday to revisit a vote it took Monday night on certifying new elections equipment, and Cordle being gone would seem to lock the board in a 2-2 tie on the matter until he's replaced.

"We appreciate that he recognized the importance of the agency and all 100 county boards over the one individual," state elections director Karen Brinson Bell said Wednesday.

Cordle led the push this spring to oust former director Kim Strach and hire Brinson Bell, a former elections director in Transylvania County, saying the state needed to focus more on elections administration.

Local elections directors and board members from around the state met this week in Cary, and at the Monday morning opening, Cordle told attendees a joke that ended by comparing a cow who refused to be impregnated to a woman.

Many of the officials at the meeting in Cary this week are women.

Cordle, a Democrat appointed by Cooper, said Tuesday afternoon he hadn't heard any complaints about the joke, and he believed it got "a big laugh."

In his resignation letter, he apologized.

"I sincerely apologize to those who heard my joke at the elections conference on Monday and all those affected by my words," he wrote.

The joke had been the talk of the conference for some. Wake County Board of Elections member Gerry Cohen called it "an extremely lengthy dirty joke" that was "misogynistic and wildly inappropriate for a high-ranking state official to tell ... to kick off a training session of 600 election officials and administrators."

Watauga Watch Democratic blogger Jerry Williamson published a version of the joke and called for Cordle to step down.

Some former and current employees of the state elections board told WRAL News on background that this was not the first time Cordle has made comments which were inappropriate or insensitive to context.

Porter said Cooper will name someone to replace Cordle as soon as is practical.

The state board, with oversight for elections in North Carolina, has been in consistent tumult the last few years. It didn't even exist for nearly 300 days as Cooper and the Republican-controlled legislature fought a series of lawsuits over control of board appointments.

Cordle became chairman in late January, replacing Joshua Malcolm, who had declined to serve on a board newly constituted in the wake of the most recent lawsuit. Malcolm had replaced Andy Penry, who resigned Dec. 1 after a number of his tweets came to light criticizing President Donald Trump.

Board members are supposed to refrain from partisan activity, and Penry said at the time that he didn't want to distract from an ongoing inquiry into election results in the 9th Congressional District. That investigation led to a do-over election now underway and to criminal charges, some of which were announced Tuesday in a fresh round of indictments.

The current board is mired in some back and forth over what sort of voting equipment to allow counties to purchase going into the 2020 presidential elections. There was a 3-2 vote Monday to move toward changing state certification requirements, which would keep one vendor's system from being sold in North Carolina.

That decision was to be finalized in mid-August.

But Tuesday morning, the board announced a fresh meeting for Thursday, and Cordle said board member David Black had misunderstood Monday's vote. That made it likely the board would reverse itself, but since Cordle voted against the change Monday, it now seems the board is deadlocked 2-2, with Democrats favoring machines that produce hand-marked ballots and Republicans more open to other equipment.

A deadlock would mean the new motion fails, leaving Monday's decision in place until the mid-August meeting.

Wake County already uses hand-marked ballots, but about a third of North Carolina's voters live in counties that use touchscreen machines.

Lawmakers could again delay the deadline for getting rid of the touchscreen machines if counties don't have enough time to buy, test and train on new machines before next year's elections.

Brinson Bell said the board will meet Thursday as planned, when members will likely talk to their attorneys about next steps.