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April 15, 2024

Panel: Stewart to remain on ballot

On December 28, 2023, a five-member, multi-county board of elections panel, appointed by the North Carolina State Board of Elections, conducted a hearing in Statesville in regards to the candidacy of local attorney Melissa Stewart for the Office of NC District Court Judge District 32 – Seat 3. Shown above, left to right: members appointed to the panel were: Iredell County Board of Elections members Alan Carpenter, Ginky Torres, Jason Abernathy, and Alexander County Board of Elections member Nancy K. Sharpe. Not shown: Iredell Board of Elections member Jameka Haynes, who joined the meeting remotely.  (Times photo)

Board of Elections panel overrules challenge

On December 28, 2023, a five-member, multi-county board of elections panel, appointed by the North Carolina State Board of Elections, conducted a hearing in regards to the candidacy of local attorney Melissa Stewart for the Office of NC District Court Judge District 32 – Seat 3. The panel voted unanimously 5-0 to overrule the challenge, thus keeping Stewart on the ballot for the November 2024 election.

Melissa Stewart (submitted photo)

The following five members were appointed to the panel: Iredell County Board of Elections members Alan Carpenter, Ginky Torres, Jason Abernathy, and Jameka Haynes, and Alexander County Board of Elections member Nancy K. Sharpe. The State Board selected Alan Carpenter to chair the panel.

The hearing was held at the Iredell County Commissioners Meeting Room, located at 200 South Center Street, Statesville.

The candidate challenge was filed by Cody Eugene James, a registered voter in Alexander County, according to Alexander County Board of Elections Director Patrick Wike and the documents filed by James.

In the filing, James questioned that Stewart met the residency requirement to run for the office. Stewart, who serves as a magistrate judge in Alexander County, listed her address as Hiddenite but James disputed this.

Stewart was represented at the hearing by attorney Ken Darty. He called Stewart as a witness and also called Alexander County Clerk of Superior Court Edwin Chapman.

Through sworn testimony of Stewart and Mr. Chapman and various documents, Darty showed the following:

• Stewart has been a resident of Alexander County since October 2019, when she began leasing a residence in Taylorsville. She worked as an attorney with an office in the law offices of Robert LaMontagne in Taylorsville beginning in mid-2019. She had practiced law in her own office in Catawba County for three years prior to moving her office to Taylorsville in 2019.

• On April 1, 2023, Stewart was sworn in as a magistrate judge in Alexander County.

• Mrs. Taylor Chapman and Stewart have been friends for some time, Stewart stated.

• In October 2023, Stewart moved out of her leased property in Taylorsville, just prior to the yearly lease ending, due to increasing rent. Mr. Chapman and his wife, Taylor, became landlords for Stewart during a period of about 56 days from October 17 to mid-December 2023, until Stewart could find a permanent residence. The Chapmans rental arrangement with Stewart was a verbal agreement without a written lease. During this time, she stayed part of the time elsewhere, with other family members and her boyfriend, as her work schedule permitted.

• While she was staying with the Chapmans, on or about Friday, December 8, Stewart learned that Judge L. Dale Graham would not be seeking reelection as District Court Judge, Seat 3. (Stewart filed to run for office on Monday, December 11.)

• Stewart indicated her new residence in Taylorsville by showing her lease agreement to the panel along with other official documents.

James asked Chapman how many days per month Stewart stayed at the Chapman home. Chapman replied that Stewart stayed seven to eight days per month, depending on her work schedule.

Darty asked Chapman if, at any time during those 56 days, if Chapman considered Stewart to have abandoned that residence. Chapman replied, “No.”

Chairman Carpenter asked if James wished to enter the filed challenge documents into evidence. James replied that he did wish to do so.

James was sworn in as a witness, then Darty asked if James filed the challenge based on a statement that Stewart was not a full-time resident of Alexander County. James replied that was correct. He said he understood Stewart was living at the Chapman home about seven days per month.

“You filed it because you were under the impression that, because she did not stay there every night, that…” Darty began.

“That it was not her permanent residence,” James stated.

“That’s the only reason why you did it?” Darty asked.

“Yes, that’s how it was presented to me,” James replied.

There were no other witnesses called to testify and both sides were then able to give closing statements.

In part, Darty said, “I think the people of Alexander and Iredell counties should determine who their next judge is for District 32. She is an officer of the court. She has been licensed to practice law in the state of North Carolina. She is aware that there are severe consequences for providing false information with respect to her being able to register to vote and run for candidacy…There has been no testimony or proof that she ever had the intent to abandon her place at Mr. Chapman’s residence, other than to move again to a residence located in Alexander County.”

James closed by saying, “In a month’s time, she stayed there seven days a month, as Mr. Chapman stated. That does not appear to be a permanent residence to me, and that’s basically the argument that I’m going to stand by. That’s all I have to say.”

With closing statements over, Torres moved to overrule the challenge and Abernathy seconded the motion, which received unanimous consent.

Wike noted that the challenger or a candidate inversely affected by the panel’s decision may file an appeal to the NC State Board of Elections.

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