PLEASANT GARDEN, N.C. (WGHP) – An election finance complaint filed by Jerry Alan Branson about a group that supported his opponent in his failed bid to return to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners may not have any legal standing.
Branson, a Republican and longtime member of the board until he was narrowly defeated in 2020, lost to incumbent Democrat Kay Cashion in a bid for the at-large seat on the board. In incomplete and unofficial results, Cashion received about 58% of the more than 183,000 votes cast.
But Branson filed a complaint with the North Carolina Board of Elections, first reported by the High Point Enterprise, based on signs that apparently were created by the Pleasant Guardians, a limited liability corporation, and posted outside a polling precinct to thank Cashion along with another candidate for the board, Republican Alan Perdue of District 2, and state Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Whitsett).
The text of the sign calls the three “rocks of our garden,” referencing when those three had supported rejecting a zone change that would have allowed a quarry to be opened in Pleasant Garden five years ago.
Branson’s concern, he told WGHP in an email on Tuesday, is that the group’s work may have required it under state election law to register as a political action committee. He says Cashion, who did not respond immediately to a request for comment from WGHP, told him that the group had called her “about putting her name on the sign,” which he said would suggest the group could be considered a PAC.
Pleasant Guardians is a state-registered LLC, and its company contact at an address on Gate City Boulevard is Lisa Rierson. There was no listed phone or email for the company, and Rierson did not respond to a message to her via Facebook.
But the sign in and of itself would not require the company to register as a PAC, campaign finance expert Eric Heberlig of the UNC Charlotte School of Government, told WGHP.
When Heberlig reviewed the words the Pleasant Guardians had placed on the signs Branson cited outside Pleasant Garden Town Hall, he told WGHP that “would clearly qualify as an ‘issue ad’ and thus would not be subject to PAC or 501c3 or 4 limitations.”
Heberlig explained that what a sign says is the entire issue with the law.
“The Supreme Court (Buckley v. Valeo 1976) said the following phrases constitute an endorsement (which would require a PAC to say): ‘vote for, elect, support, cast your ballot for, Smith for Congress, vote against, defeat, reject,’” he said. “If the message contained any of those words, 501(c)3s or 501(c)4s would be limited in their ability to pay for it. (PACs, SuperPACs, 527s, individuals, or other organizations like corporations or interest groups could).”
Patrick Gannon, a spokesperson for the state Board of Elections, cited state statute in responding to questions from WGHP.
“Business entities are prohibited from making contributions to candidates under G.S. 163-278.19,” Gannon’s message said. “However, a business entity may make independent expenditures in support of or in opposition to candidates.”
He cited the BOE’s website for specific requirements on financial issues.
“Both candidates and individuals or entities making independent expenditures may engage in election-related activity outside the buffer zone at the polling place,” Gannon’s email said.
Branson had said in an email that on “the weekend of October 22 [just after the start of early, in-person voting], the one [sign] was close to Door Entrance of [the] polling location.”
Charlie Collicutt, the Guilford County elections director, said that this issue strictly is a matter for the North Carolina BOE because it’s a “finance complaint.” He said his workers would move or remove any sign that is inside the 25-foot buffer zone.
“I did not hear of any issues with signage inside the zone,” he said, “so I’d assume it was placed correctly.”
Branson has a history of challenging boards of elections.
In 2020, he lost to Democrat Mary Beth Murphy by 72 votes and challenged the vote for about six weeks before conceding.
In July he lost a bid to halt certification of the bond referendum voters passed to allocate $1.7 billion to replace/repair/remove facilities for Guilford County Schools because he said the school system violated election law and campaigned for the bond.