Voting neutral zone violated


By Melanie Speicher - mspeicher@aimmedianetwork.com



SIDNEY — A report involving a violation of the 100-foot neutral zone surrounding a Shelby County polling location has been forwarded to the Shelby County prosecutor for review and recommendation on how to proceed with the matter.

And the woman involved in the violation, Lori Viars, of Lebanon, said the problem arose because the Shelby County Board of Elections did not have flags out to indicate where the 100-foot zone was located at its building.

The board met Tuesday morning to review the report of the incident, which involved the board office Sunday afternoon. The office was open as a polling location for registered voters to cast their votes.

Director Dawn Billing and board members Chris Gibbs, who is board chairman, and Chuck Craynon reviewed their written reports for the other two board members, Merrill Asher and Jon Baker.

Craynon said he was working the polling location when he noticed many that people coming into the office had cards which looked the same. One of the voters said he had received the card from someone outside the building.

“There was a woman in the parking lot to the west of the building and she had (promotional) materials for (Lilli) Vitale,” said Craynon. “She told me what she was doing and I said, ‘You can’t do that within 100 feet of the poling location,’ and (I told her) that she wasn’t outside the 100-foot area.”

The woman, who was identified as Viars, then went to the east parking lot, where her husband, was sitting in a lawn chair.

“I told them both the same thing: that they weren’t outside the 100-foot limit,” said Craynon.

Craynon said he mentioned to Asher and Billing what was going on.

Billing said the woman had come into the board office and said she was with the Warren County Board of Elections and asked what the policy was in Shelby County for distributing election materials. Viars was told 100 feet from the polling place, as that’s what state law requires.

Billing tried to contact Prosecutor Tim Sell to make sure that the 100-foot guideline applied even though the board office is county-owned.

While Billing was on the phone, Craynon was calling Gibbs, who came to the board office.

“When I got there, I chatted with Chuck and Merrill because I wanted to know what they had been told,” said Gibbs. “I told them not to worry about its being county property as we were defending the 100-foot neutral zone.

“As I had walked by her, I stepped off from where she was to the door and it was 51 feet,” he said.

After talking with Craynon and Asher, Gibbs introduced himself to Viars and included his title with the Board of Elections.

“I told her she was within the 100-foot area and she would have to move,” said Gibbs. “I told her we can step it off, but it will put them almost to the road. She told me that if she can’t talk to people, ‘we’ll just leave.’”

The incident lasted about 45 minutes, said Gibbs.

Viars explained the situation from her viewpoint via an email to the Sidney Daily News, Monday night.

“The Shelby County Board of Elections did not have flags out to mark the 100-foot zone, so I went inside to ask where the line was,” said Viars. “A male worker seemed vague, but eventually came outside and showed us exactly where we could put our lawn chair. We assumed we were OK since the BOE worker was the one who showed us where to put our chair. We began to hand out candy and literature for Republican Lilli Vitale.”

Viars alleges the situation changed when Gibbs showed up.

“In and out of the building, Gibbs huddled with the other workers, whispering to them, clearly talking about my husband and me,” said Viars. “That’s when I began to get nervous. Gibbs took out his cell phone and told us he was taking a photo of his truck with our Trump sign, which clearly was not his real purpose. The photo shows there were no flags marking the 100-foot zone.”

Viars said she found Gibbs’s manner to be very intimidating.

“He said we were too close and he estimated that the 100-foot mark was actually out in the street. I told him we weren’t there to disobey any rules and we would just go ahead and leave, which we did,” said Viars.

Viars said she traveled to Shelby County to pass out literature for Vitale, who is running for the State Board of Education District 1 seat. The seat doesn’t include Warren County.

Viars said she has been campaigning for candidates for many years and the situation Sunday was something she had never experienced before.

“… Most polling place personnel appreciate it when you stop in and explain to them why you are there, tell them you want to follow all the rules and ask for a clarification of their boundaries,” said Viars.

Gibbs said Viars’s distributing election material wasn’t the issue here. The problem dealt with the facts that she and her husband were within the 100-foot neutral zone and that she seemed to use her position with the Warren County board of elections to try to change the rules.

“We asked her to leave and she did,” said Gibbs during the board meeting. “What raised my ire is that she identified herself with her title with the Warren County Board of Elections. Being a board member doesn’t negate her First Amendment Rights of free speech.”

Nor, said Gibbs, can she use her title to modify the 100-foot neutral zone.

“And you can’t, in my opinion, leverage your official position to enhance your First Amendment Rights,” said Gibbs.

Gibbs said there has never been a need for flags to be placed 100 feet from the board office in the past for early voting.

“The fact that the flags weren’t there doesn’t negate the 100-foot rule. The burden is on the person (with election materials), not on the board of elections,” said Gibbs.

Gibbs said Viars has contacted the Secretary of State about the situation.

He told the board they had several choices on how to proceed. They could forward the incident report to the prosecutor for his advice; forward it to the prosecutor for his recommendation; file it and do nothing with it; or review it and take no action.

Asher said he was concerned because Viars used her position with the Warren County Board of Elections when she introduced herself.

“It’s an ethics issue,” said Asher. “She knew the rule to be 100 feet of the polling place. That’s two strikes against her.”

Baker agreed that what she did was wrong ethically. Craynon said at the very least her board of elections needs to be informed about the incident.

The board decided to submit the report to the Shelby County Prosecutor for his counsel and recommendation. They also stipulated his response should be sent to the Warren County Board of Elections.

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By Melanie Speicher

mspeicher@aimmedianetwork.com

Reach the writer at 937-538-4822; follow her on Twitter @MelSpeicherSDN. Follow the SDN on Facebook, www.facebook.com/SidneyDailyNews.

Reach the writer at 937-538-4822; follow her on Twitter @MelSpeicherSDN. Follow the SDN on Facebook, www.facebook.com/SidneyDailyNews.