LUMBERTON — A candidate for sheriff is asking Robeson County’s Republicans to re-register as unaffiliated so they can vote in the sheriff’s race, and it appears some are doing just that.
Burnis Wilkins is one of five Democratic candidates for Robeson County sheriff. His election campaign began sending out letters to Republican voters a week before the candidate filing period ended Feb. 28.
“My thing is, when I realized that there was not going to be a Republican, I met with my committee when we saw there wasn’t going to be a Republican candidate, and my thought was to involve the Republican voters in the sheriff’s race,” said Wilkins, a former lawman and current Lumberton City Council member.
The other four candidates for sheriff in the May 8 primary election are Randy Graham, James Jones, George Kenworthy and Ronnie Patterson, all Democrats. Current Sheriff Kenneth Sealey is not seeking re-election.
In primary elections, Republican and Democratic voters can cast ballots only for candidates in their political party. Unaffiliated voters can ask for the Republican or Democratic ballot.
According to the Board of Elections, the number of unaffiliated voters in Robeson County rose from 15,926 on Feb. 26 to 16,029 on Thursday — a gain of 103. In that same time period, the number of Republican voters fell from 9,944 to 9,927 while the number of Democratic voters dropped from 48,644 to 48,586.
Wilkins said his motive for sending out the letter was not to drum up votes for himself. He said he wants Republicans to have a voice in who will be the county’s next sheriff, a decision that will affect their lives for the next four years.
“Obviously, I would appreciate their votes,” Wilkins said with a laugh.
Members of his election campaign pulled records from the 2014 election, Wilkins said. They then went to the Robeson County Board of Elections and bought the list of voters, identified the 3,030 Republicans who cast ballots and began mailing the letters to them.
The letter reads in part, “We have been asked by many members of the Republican Party to reach out and talk about the process a Republican has to go through to be able to vote for Burnis Wilkins in the May primary.
“As you know, Burnis is running on the Democratic ticket and during primaries citizens can only vote their party. This means hundreds of Republicans won’t be able to cast their ballot for Burnis.”
The letter goes on the explain how a Republican would need to fill out a form at the Robeson County Board of Elections Office to re-register as unaffiliated before May 13. The letter also informs recipients that a registration form is included in the mailing and the Wilkins campaign will deliver the form to the Board of Elections if the recipient drops it off at the Wilkins’ campaign headquarters.
“Please note that after the primary you can change your affiliation back to Republican immediately, using the same process,” the letter reads.
According to the Board of Elections, voters have until April 13 to switch party affiliation in advance of the primary.
Republicans who switch, however, might lose the chance to support their candidate in a contested GOP race, of which there are three in May.
Commissioner David Edge is being opposed by Ronald Hammonds in the race for the District 6 seat; and challengers Jarrod Lowery and Tom Norton, both Republicans, are running in District 47 to try to win the state House seat held by Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat.
On the federal level, Republicans Robert Pittenger, the incumbent, will face Clarence W. Goins Jr., of Eastover, and Mark Harris, of Charlotte, in the primary race for District 9 in the U.S. House.
Edge is uncertain of the effect on his effort to win a third four-year term.
“Well, I’m not for sure. It could be if he gets a lot to change over who would vote for me,” Edge said.
Edge believes many of the Republicans in his district who would vote for him might favor Wilkins.
“I got a letter,” Edge said with a chuckle.
He and Wilkins met a couple days after he received the letter, Edge said.
“He apologized to me and said he would not send any more letters to Republicans in my district,” Edge said.
The leader of the county Republican Party is ambivalent.
“Sure it provides GOP voters to have a more direct voice in the sheriff’s race but at the expense of having less voice in their own GOP primaries. Again, we understand the technique, we appreciate the technique, but we have mixed feelings about it,” said Phillip Stephens, county GOP chairman.
The county Republican Party had no role in the letter’s conception or their mailing, he said.
“We did not ask his campaign to send out any letters,” Stephens said. “We were made aware of the letter after some initial ones were apparently mailed. We did not influence its mailing. We did not supply any lists as we can’t do that for another party.”
Some local GOP members are not happy about what Wilkins did, even though the request is for a temporary party switch and the Republican Party is remaining, essentially, neutral about the letter, Stephens said.
“Hard-line Republicans disagree with this position and have a little more heartburn regarding any attempt to utilize this technique, feeling it may both undermine hard-fought progress at increasing GOP registration and siphons voters from GOP candidates who have contested primaries for the first time, making it an inopportune time to use the technique for Republicans,” Stephens said.
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