Elections watchdog cast doubt on veracity of Forsyth results

JoAnne Allen listens to a campaign speech by Mary Gore on behalf of gubernatorial candidate Gardenia Henley.

The group assembled in the meeting room at the Reynolda Branch Library for a program entitled “Truth Be Told in Forsyth County” on March 13 included both blacks and whites, unaffiliated and Democratic voters, though it skewed a bit Republican.

The presenter, JoAnne Allen, a registered Democrat, didn’t mince any words.

“There’s a lot of corruption and a lot of voter and election fraud in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County,” she said.

Allen reprised several allegations of state and federal election law violations that were aired in early 2011 following complaints by former elections workers and a number of candidates that were defeated in election contests.

“Election fraud is when you manipulate election computers,” Allen said. “That’s what’s being done here in Forsyth County.”

The three-member Forsyth County Board of Elections, which includes two Democrats and one Republican, investigated allegations of voter fraud in early 2011 and by unanimous vote “found no credible evidence of intentional violations of the voting laws.”

Allen charged that Forsyth County Elections Director Rob Coffman is conspiring with Linda Sutton, the Democratic chair of the local elections board, and a group of elected officials and candidates she called “the alliance” to rig elections.

“It does not matter how many people you go and get to vote for you,” Allen told the audience of about 20 people, including a Republican candidate for NC House and an unaffiliated candidate who is trying to get on the ballot for county commission. “If Rob Coffman, Linda Sutton and that alliance group do not want you to win, guess what? You will not win.”

Sutton said later: “We have the newspapers, as well as the SBI that looked into it. The state Board of Elections found that they not see any voter fraud. I’m not going to rehash it.”

As a prime example of the alleged fraud, Allen told the audience at the library that election servers were networked in Forsyth County from 2006 to 2009.

“These servers were connected in 2008,” she said. “Now, do I know whether President Obama won North Carolina honestly or not? I don’t know.”

Asked whether citizens should hold confidence in the result of this year’s highly contested presidential election, in which North Carolina is expected to play a crucial role, Coffman said, “The Forsyth County Board of Elections provides accurate election results and accessible voting to our citizens. Nothing has been proven otherwise.”

Allen told the audience at the library that under the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002, it is illegal to network election servers.

In 2011, YES! Weekly reported that while the practice is not illegal, it is frowned upon.

Gary Bartlett, executive director of the NC Board of Elections, said at the time that Coffman had remotely accessed the Forsyth County Board of Elections’ Unity Election System, which formats ballots, programs election equipment and tabulates results, during an out-of-town conference. Bartlett’s staff instructed Coffman to discontinue the practice.

Allen also alleged that Forsyth County contracted with a consultant – James Dalton, a former employee of Election Systems and Software – without a competitive bidding process and without appropriate approval from the county commission.

“So, you see, it was never even bidded on,” Allen said. “They gave it to him. The man made, I think it was $15,000 off of two or three times coming to Forsyth County. This is the same person who was friends, still is friends with Rob Coffman. But it never got to the county commissioners because anything on that needs to go to them so they can vote on that.”

The county provided three contracts for professional services with Dalton Consulting in response to a request by YES! Weekly, each in the amount of $4,500 that were signed by County Manager Dudley Watts, along with representatives of the county’s legal and finance departments, in March 2008, September 2008 and October 2009 respectively.

The services included ballot layout and coding, and accuracy testing, in addition to election-day support.

The county’s budget ordinance allows the manager to execute professional service contracts under the amount of $50,000 without a vote of the county commission. Watts said under the governing state statute, professional services purchases by the county are not required to be let for bid.

“This to me did not look unreasonable in terms of the services provided,” he said. “It to me looked like a fairly technical review of something that requires a lot of technical expertise, and I thought it made sense because you want elections to go right.”

The allegations continued at the library meeting.

“We’re talking about a director that actually put blank ballots into the system to be counted,” Allen said. “That’s how you stuff ballots. And then, when he was caught one time… he put it on staff: ‘Oh, somebody put 25 extra ballots in here.’ That doesn’t make any sense.”

Allen said the revelation that Coffman had attempted to engage in ballot stuffing came to light during a 2010 recount conducted at the request of Republican clerk of courts candidate Jeff Polston when 25 blank ballots were found in a precinct box. Coffman said he vaguely recalled the incident but questioned how it led Allen to conclude that he was attempting to manipulate the results of an election.

Minutes from a Dec. 14, 2010 meeting indicate “Mrs. Sutton requested Mr. Coffman explain the process that occurred during the Precinct 404 recount. Coffman explained that after the ballots were counted, the total ballots was 25 ballots higher than the total amount from election night. After examining the ballots, it was found that apparently the precinct judge had inadvertently placed blank, un-voted ballots in a voted ballot container. When the un-voted ballots were removed from the ballot container for a second count during the recount process, there was no discrepancy from the amount of total ballots on election night.”

Neither the discovery of the blank ballots nor the recount itself changed the outcome of the election, and Democrat Susan Speaks Frye was ultimately sworn in as clerk of court.

Allen also repeated an allegation that was the subject of a YES! Weekly investigation that led to hearings by the Forsyth County Board of Elections.

“The board of elections staff were told or directed or instructed – whichever word you like – by Rob Coffman – ‘Listen, there’s no signature on these cards.’ ‘Go ahead and run ’em through.’ ‘Don’t worry about that, toss those cards out.’ This isn’t hearsay. These are actual witnesses that have come forward. There are statements that have been turned over to the FBI.”

Coffman adamantly disputed the assertion in a December 2011 interview.

“It did not happen,” he said. “There’s never been an instance when I ordered a registration to be altered.”

Allen said during her presentation: “There are people still at the board of elections who actually saw Rob Coffman count ballots by himself. And, of course, the statute tells you that you have to have at least two of the board members there when you count those ballots.”

A former elections employee, Rebecca VanderKlok, told YES! Weekly that she and Coffman ran absentee ballots through a counting machine outside the presence of members of the county board of elections. She added that she did not believe Coffman would tamper with the ballots. Bartlett confirmed that, if that indeed occurred, it would constitute a violation of state law.

VanderKlok later told Don Wright, general counsel for the state board: “The election law violations, like… the absentee ballots – from the time I’ve worked there, there’s never been a board member present when they were counted.”

Wright and VanderKlok quickly dropped the subject in the conversation, which VanderKlok recorded, and Wright told YES! Weekly the local board was responsible for investigating the allegation.

“We all want fair elections without fraud,” said Debra Conrad, a county commissioner who attended Allen’s presentation. “It’s up to the board of elections to make sure there’s no fraud. We all want to make sure everything is by the books. What’s true and not true, I don’t know.”

Conrad, who is a candidate for NC House in District 74, said she came mainly to listen.

Allen urged listeners to call members of the board of elections, lawmakers and law enforcement officials to demand reform.

“I’ve never seen change start up here at the top with a thousand people and then take off,” she said. “Change always start with a handful of people and then the movement start. And we have to make that movement here in Forsyth County, not for us, but for the generations behind us.”

The reformer suggested to her audience that there is no room in the middle.

“If you’re not a believer, if you don’t believe that this happened,” she said, “then trust me: You’re just fooling yourself or you’re part of what’s going on.”

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