BREAKING: Voting irregularities past and present surface as election looms

by Jordan Green

When Ethel Ellis Johnson, a 68-year-old resident of the Rankin School Place apartments, turned up at White Oak Grove Baptist Church to vote in the May 6 primary election, poll workers redirected her to the polling place at Rankin Elementary because she had moved in the summer of 2005. The last time Johnson, an Obama supporter, had voted was in 1992, when she cast her ballot for Democrat Bill Clinton, and she had not changed her voter information at the time of the 2008 primary.

Greensboro police Detective Tom Lippa recalled later that when Johnson presented herself at the Rankin Elementary polling place she was upset that poll workers wanted her to vote on a provisional paper ballot. Guilford County Deputy Election Director Charlie Collicutt said Johnson was entitled to cast her vote on an electronic voting machine, like all other registered voters who lived in that precinct. So Johnson voted on a machine, in which the ballots cast are not retrievable.

And then — if two Authorization To Vote, or ATV forms on file at the Guilford County Board of Elections are to be believed — Johnson voted a second time at the same polling place on the same day. The names and dates of birth on the two ATVs are exactly the same and Johnson’s signatures appear to be identical, but different poll workers initialed the forms and the two sequence numbers, 196 and 412, indicate that more than 200 voters passed through the line between Johnson’s two visits.

“Based on our procedures, I think a vote was cast,” Guilford County Deputy Election Director Charlie Collicutt said of Johnson’s second visit to the polls. Johnson maintains that she voted only once.

Johnson’s was one of four cases flagged by Election Director George Gilbert and reported to the county board of elections, which in turn ordered him to refer the information to District Attorney Doug Henderson for prosecution.

In one of those cases, Carolyn Lovely of High Point confessed that she had cast a ballot during early voting and then voted a second time on the official primary election day. A note written on Lovely’s voter registration file by a county election administrator states, “She realized what she had done later that afternoon — returned and apologized.”

Lovely’s first vote was made on a retrievable absentee ballot, so election administrators destroyed it. Collicutt said Lovely was able to vote twice because after participating in early voting she showed up at her polling place at 6:30 a.m. to vote on the official May 6 primary election day. The Guilford County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for distributing lists of those who have voted early to each polling place so that the names may be crossed off of the precinct lists. The sheriff’s deputy responsible for delivering the list to Lovely’s polling place, Astor Dowdy Towers, did not do so until 9:30 a.m.

Of the three cases forwarded to the district attorney, two appear to have been for votes cast legitimately. In one case, 61-year-old Betsy Farmer of Greensboro’s Irving Park neighborhood signed for her 96-year-old mother, who is blind and suffers from arthritis. Farmer said she was told by poll workers that she should do so. After checking with election officials, Farmer said later that she learned that the proper procedure is to have her mother place a mark on the form, after which the daughter should sign her own name and make a note that she is the daughter.

In another case, election officials misread 61-year-old Richard Gantt’s signature. The voter is registered as Richard Gantt, but signed his full name, Charles Richard Gantt, on his ATV form. Officials misread Gantt’s signature as “Charles Rodriguez,” and Collicutt said that after recognizing their error they alerted the district attorney that the ballot had apparently been legitimately cast.

That Ethel Johnson was apparently able to cast two votes during the primary election calls into question the security of North Carolina’s election system, but no evidence has emerged that would indicate she was part of a coordinated effort to perpetrate widespread voter fraud. Nor would one vote in the Democratic primary — a bitterly fought contest between the two Democratic frontrunners, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York — have changed the result. In the end, Obama defeated Clinton by a margin of 229,722 votes in North Carolina.

When asked about her apparent double-vote, Johnson questioned whether the purpose of the call was to try to discourage her from voting in the general election.

“I’m going to vote,” she said. “I am black, and I am proud to say it. I’m going to vote for Obama. Nothing against Mr. McCain. I don’t know him. There’s someone of my own color running, and I’m going to vote for him.”

Contradicting Collicutt and Detective Lippa, Johnson said she had never spoken to the police about the matter. She suggested that lawyer Michael Schlosser, a former Guilford County district attorney, might speak to her character.

Schlosser, now a lawyer in private practice, said he had not spoken to Johnson since before the primary election.

“I don’t recall her ever being involved in wrongdoing,” he said. “As I recall, I met Ms. Johnson when I was the district attorney about 25 years ago. She has from time to time referred clients to me, and she’ll give me a call every year or so to ask my opinion about legal or quasi-legal matters.”

The handling of Johnson’s case has proven to be a source of frustration to the bipartisan Guilford County Board of Elections.

“Our friends at the District Attorney have not been leaping to help us out when people vote twice,” said James R. Turner, the Democratic chairman, during a special meeting on Oct. 24 that was called by Republican minority member Kathryn Lindley to address other concerns.

“We felt there was inaction on the part of the district attorney,” Collicutt said.

The status of cases referred by the board of elections to the district attorney’s office has attracted the attention of NC Rep. John Blust, a Republican who has cosponsored unsuccessful legislation to require voters to present photo ID before casting their ballots.

“Illegal voting partially disenfranchises all those who legally participate in our elections,” Blust wrote in a letter to District Attorney Doug Henderson on Oct. 13. “In the absence of a photo ID law in North Carolina, this type of illegal voting cannot be stopped. The only thing that can be done to discourage this type of voter fraud is to vigorously prosecute these few instances where cheaters are actually caught. Can you please inform me about the status of these prosecutions?”

Henderson said Monday that he expects the police department to return the case files sometime in the next couple weeks. While declining to comment on the specifics of the cases, Henderson said the fact that the police department has been unable to develop evidence to warrant criminal charges does not mean the cases are automatically closed.  

Detective Lippa of the Greensboro Police Department’s fraud and financial crimes unit said he was unable to develop sufficient evidence to charge Johnson for election fraud.

“The poll worker will write a handwritten number, and they walk them over to the poll,” Lippa said. “That’s not enough probable cause to make an arrest. For me to have enough probable cause, you’re going to have to show me her vote, and to do that you have to violate her voting rights. I don’t know if the poll worker made a mistake writing the sequence number. There was a lot of confusion at the polling place.”

Lippa said he also did not find the similarity between the two signatures on Johnson’s Authorization To Vote forms to be persuasive.

“No ID is required,” he said. “How do I know the second person is the same lady? I’m not a signature expert.”

Lippa said Johnson’s case is the only allegation of voter fraud he has investigated in his 13 years of policing, and he described them as “rare.” Yet he questioned whether North Carolina law protects the integrity of elections.

“I would think that voting is such a private circumstance and such an important function that simply showing picture ID should be required when you vote,” Lippa said. “That’s a political statement. A little more should be taken in about who’s voting and when they’re voting.”

Collicutt said he believes the two poll workers who separately initialed Johnson’s Authorization to Vote forms carried out their duties properly.

“Precinct officials do make errors, but this is one of the more basic procedures that they make several times a day,” he said. “I think procedures were followed.”

Blust said the case demonstrates how easy it is to commit voter fraud in North Carolina.

“The voter trying to vote illegally would almost have to make some kind of mistake to get caught, and I just wonder how many of them aren’t making mistakes,” he said. “I t would be so easy to do. The fact that it is easy to do would indicate that we need to make some reforms so it wouldn’t be easy to cheat.”

Despite Johnson’s apparent success at voting twice, Collicutt expressed faith in the integrity of the county’s election system.

“That was a big election with over a hundred thousand people, and we pulled four examples, and I don’t think any of them were done maliciously,” he said. “I’ve seen elderly people vote early, and come back having no idea that they’ve already voted, and try to vote again.”

Active felon caught registering to vote

Greensboro police charged Rodney Vereen, a detainee at the Guilford County Jail, with voter registration fraud on Oct. 22. A warrant states that while incarcerated Vereen registered to vote under an alias, Eric Darrell Newban, on Oct. 9. Guilford County election officials said Vereen was registered during a drive by the League of Women Voters.

Greensboro police Detective Rob Finch of the criminal intelligence squad told NC Board of Elections investigator Marshall Tutor in an Oct. 23 e-mail that Vereen is a wanted fugitive from Georgia who fled the state while on probation after being convicted of felonies. As an active felon, Vereen is ineligible to vote. The matter was brought to the attention of Guilford County Elections Director George Gilbert on the same day, and Gilbert assured state elections officials that Vereen would be prohibited from voting.

Gilbert estimated that the League registered 30 to 40 inmates before the cutoff date on Oct. 10.

Vereen’s false voter registration form contained no driver’s license number and no Social Security number, and he did not include either of those documents with his application. County election officials said that because he provided no documentation that would allow them to verify his identity through a search of Division of Motor Vehicles database or Social Security numbers, Vereen would not have been able to cast a ballot unless he presented valid identification at a polling place. Doing so fraudulently would accrue him additional felonies.

Court records show that Vereen has been in custody since Aug. 22, and faces trial on Oct. 28 for more than a dozen charges of fraud. Warrants allege that he impersonated a police officer and illegally used a blue light to falsely detain someone; stole a car; and attempted to obtain Oxycontin and other drugs by presenting himself as a different person at two different pharmacies in Greensboro.

Kathryn Lindley, the minority Republican member of the Guilford County Board of Elections called a special meeting on Oct. 24 to question election administrators about the incident.

“When there’s no ID shown and the people are registered through this registration process, then what’s to prevent someone else who is not the inmate from showing up on election day or at an early-voting site, when, once again, they don’t have to provide ID?” Lindley asked. “All they have to do is tell you what their driver’s license number is or their Social Security number is, and what’s to prevent them from voting for this registered person in jail?”

Lindley requested that election administrators provide the board with a list of all voters that registered at the jail at its next meeting on Tuesday. James R. Turner, the board’s Democratic chairman asked if a staff member could interview the League of Women Voters registrar.

“I personally want to challenge every request that comes through that process,” Lindley said. “I think that we have a responsibility to determine that there’s not voter fraud that’s occurring. Now, at the jail, the reason I say that is because a large number of the people that are there have been convicted of felonies in the past…. There’s a little more suspicion for those who were registered at the jail, especially if they’re registered for the first time.”

Turner urged the board to refrain from drawing hasty conclusions.

“I think it’s quite titillating to hear that there was a registration drive at the jail,” he said. “Many Americans just assume that anyone in jail is guilty of something. But that is not the law. The law is that people are considered innocent until they’ve been convicted, so we may or may not have a really bad situation.”

Republican concerns about votes flipping

Officials from both major political parties complained about voting irregularities at the special meeting.

Guilford County Republican Party Chairman Bill Wright told the board that he had received numerous complaints about voters attempting to select John McCain as their choice for president and having the electronic voting machine show that Barack Obama had been selected instead. In one incident at Jamestown Town Hall Gilbert said a machine was temporarily taken out of service and recalibrated after a voter complained that his intended choice had not shown up on the machine.

“An eighty-year-old gentleman punched ‘McCain-Palin’; it went to ‘Obama-Biden,’” Wright said. “He changed it back to ‘McCain-Palin. He went through the rest of the ballot and reviewed it, and it had gone back to ‘Obama-Biden.’”

Wright added, “I think this can very well compromise the integrity of this entire voting system in Guilford County.”

Kathryn Lindley, the Republican minority member of the board, proposed that all early-voting machines be recalibrated daily.

Elections Director George Gilbert said he thought recalibrating every machine daily would be “excessive and risky.” In the end, Lindley agreed that staff could test the machines on a frequent basis and take action to recalibrate them as necessary.

“I’m not convinced that it is calibration,” Gilbert said later. “It might be voter error.”

Election administrators offered board members, party officials and members of the media a chance to try out the machines. The incline of the machine and the fact that Obama’s name is at the top of the ballot makes it easy to inadvertently touch the field for Obama when attempting to choose McCain. Paul Mengert, chairman of the Guilford County Democratic Party, said he has not received a single report of a voter having a problem with machine calibration.

Complaints from the Democratic Party have concerned access to the polls rather than accurate counting of the votes.

 “It has been reported to us by numerous people that curbside voting has not been made available at all polling places,” Mengert said, singling out Washington Terrace Park in High Point, “and we have a lot of elderly voters who need assistance.”

Gilbert countered, “They are and they have been operating curbside voting at Washington Terrace Park. I went to talk to them.”

Mengert also said that at least one polling place closed at 6 p.m. instead of 6:30, as required.

“They did recognize that they were supposed to stay open until 6:30, so they reopened,” Mengert said. “By that time thirteen or fourteen people had left, so they didn’t get to vote.”

Gilbert conceded that report: “They did close one site early. It was a mistake, and they corrected it. Someone who wants to vote can come back and vote the next day.”

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