Forsyth Board of Elections endures withering criticism during public hearing
Forsyth County Elections Director Rob Coffman responds to questions by Republican board member Jerry Jordan on Monday. (photo by Jordan Green)
Conflicting statements, allegations of election fraud, intense emotions and harsh criticism of Forsyth County Director of Elections Rob Coffman permeated every moment of a four-hour public hearing held by the Forsyth Board of Elections in Winston-Salem on Monday.
Called by the board of elections to address the concerns of current and past elections employees, the hearing featured a number of heated moments, including a spirited verbal exchange between board member Jerry Jordan, a Republican, and Gardenia Henley, a former Democratic candidate for NC House District 72.
Board member Frank Dickerson, a Democrat, asked board clerk Judy Speas to respond to an allegation by former elections employee Pam Johnson that Coffman counted absentee ballots without the presence of members of the Forsyth County Board of Elections — a violation of state elections law.
“We’ve heard a lot of allegations today about Rob instructing people to falsely fill out voter registration information and/or absentee ballots being counted without board members being present,” Dickerson said. “It’s hard to prove a negative. It’s hard to prove that that’s never happened.”
Speas, who has worked for the board of elections since 2003, said she was given the responsibility of the absentee ballots until she was replaced by Rebecca VanderKlok last March.
Dickerson asked Speas if it had ever come to her attention that staff had counted absentee ballots outside of the presence of board members.
“You want her to perjure herself,” Henley said from the audience.
“Why are you doing that?” “Shut up!” Jordan interjected. “I’ve had enough.” In fact, no one who gave testimony during Monday’s hearing did so under oath.
“Judy Speas knows that this board has an awful lot of confidence in her,” Dickerson said. “If she told us that that happened, we would number one, believe it, and number two, there would be no possibility that Judy Speas would lose her job.”
Eventually, Speas walked to the podium and offered her testimony.
“I was always the one that was in control of the ballots,” she said.
“They were never taken over there to be counted earlier. It was always during the meeting. There’s no reason why we would want to do that anyway; we’d just be duplicating our work. We have plenty of work to do; we don’t have to do it twice.”
“To your knowledge, they were never counted outside the board members’ presence, right?” Dickerson asked.
“No,” Speas responded. “And you probably would have known, had that been the case, wouldn’t you?” Dickerson asked.
“Yeah,” Speas said. “I would think so.” Jordan then asked Speas if she ever talked to VanderKlok about any impropriety with the absentee ballots.
“Did you all have that exchange?” Jordan asked.
“I haven’t talked to her since she left,” Speas responded.
Speas was one of the few current board of elections employees who testified at Monday’s hearing.
Pamela Johnson, a former employee who was fired in 2009, testified during the hearing that Elections Director Rob Coffman had counted absentee ballots without the presence of board members. VanderKlok, who resigned last October, told the top lawyer for the State Board of Elections the same thing last month. She did not accept an invitation to testify before the local board on Monday.
Terry Cox, a former board of elections employee, said he would not want to vote in Forsyth County considering the serious allegations leveled at the board.
“I worked in this board of elections for a number of years and I know there were election violations that took place from the network servers being networked in 2006,” Cox said. “I know in 2008, Mr. Coffman, there were so many applications coming into our office. Mr. Coffman, categorically beyond no questionable doubt, I heard Mr. Coffman tell employees, they were to save, save, save and it didn’t make any difference whether you checked the fill-in box, whether you had the proper information on that application or not.”
Deena Head, a former board of elections employee, said the voter verification process was compromised during the 2008 presidential election by Coffman’s directive to quickly input voter information into the board’s computer system before the start of early voting. The rush to process voter applications led to a glut of duplicate registrations.
“This was the Wednesday before the deadline for the general election — everything had to be done,” Head said. “We had to have all these people entered and then that Saturday, we get in a stack from Forsyth County Jail. It got done, but the verification process — how are you going to verify these Social Security numbers, these driver’s license numbers?” Head said she and her co-workers were told to save the records instead of going through verifying each field on the form to look for irregularities.
“It was not being verified; [there was] room for duplication; people getting saved that should not have been saved,” Head said. “[There were] people being allowed to vote that should not have been allowed to vote.”
Pamela Johnson bolstered the testimony of Cox and Head.
“As it got to the deadline, Mr. Coffman got a call from the state board because they saw that we had a lot of these [voter registration] applications in queue to be processed that were not processed,” she said.
“And the state board was concerned that these would not be entered in time for the election. Mr. Coffman informed us to ‘save, save, save.’” Coffman acknowledged that the board of elections received a large number of duplicate registrations.
“I’ve never told anybody to push anything through without examining it,” he said. “I told them it needed to be done quickly — the registration deadline was there. One-stop voting was going to be opening — it was important that we have those registrations in the system so that if they do show up to vote at one-stop, the data is in the system. It’s a big difference between asking someone to do something quickly and asking them to violate the law.”
Head also recalled an incident during the 2008 general election where a woman without proper identification was allowed to vote.
“You got anything else?” Dickerson asked “That’s not good enough?” Head responded angrily. “It seems like everything I bring to the board, everything that happens to me within the board of elections gets swept under the rug and I don’t like it.”
Board of Elections chair Linda Sutton repeatedly asked the speakers to confine , their remarks to allegations of misconduct and/or violations of election law, but the meeting rapidly developed into a critique of the methods and practices of Coffman and the board of elections.
Johnson described the board of elections as a hostile workplace environment where harassment is commonplace.
“There’s no wonder that anyone will come forward because they fear for their jobs,” Johnson said. “And you should not have to come to work on a daily basis and be subjected to names that you sure wouldn’t let anyone else call you.”
Johnson asked the board to find the connection between the illegal practices that take place in the office and the hostile work environment and the workplace harassment.
“There are people who fear to come forward and tell the truth because of retaliation,” Johnson said. “And people have been retaliated against and they will continue to be retaliated against.”
Tensions ran very high and on several occasions, it seemed as if the meeting might spiral into chaos. At one point, Sutton censured the audience after declaring a recess.
“Y’all act like this is a show,” Sutton said.
“This is some serious stuff.”
“Yes, it is,” a couple of people chimed in. Several speakers referenced a December 2009 meeting of the board of elections where Coffman informed board members that a “couple hundred” voter registration cards were returned from precinct 405 on the campus of Winston-Salem State University. Considering the fact that Derwin Montgomery defeated incumbent Joycelyn Johnson by 302 votes in the September 2009 primary for the East Ward seat on Winston-Salem City Council, the sheer volume of returned voter registration cards raised concerns.
Jeff Polston, the Republican candidate for Forsyth Superior Clerk of Court, said the board of elections had failed to train him properly when he served as a precinct judge during the 2009 municipal elections.
“I was told that year that if somebody came through with an address that wasn’t correct that I was supposed to change it in the book,” he said. “Because the board of elections had WSSU as the address, we didn’t have any PO boxes because our system didn’t have it in it. Students can come out to vote and they can be students on campus and they can vote but they have to have a PO box. So in 2009 every student who came through we said, ‘We’re glad you live at WSSU, we’re glad you’re here, but can you give us a PO box so we can send you a voter registration card?’ Every one of those kids gave us a PO box so we could send them a voter registration card.
“In 2010, I have a sit-down meeting with a few people and I find out that in early voting if you register early and you vote early, [the board of elections] has two days to send out voter registration cards,” Polston continued. “And when those voter registration cards are sent out to the people who voted, come to find out that somewhere around 400 of them came back six weeks later after, after the election had already been done and after the election had been certified.”
Terry Cox, a formerboard of electionsemployee, saidhe would not wantto vote in ForsythCounty consideringthe serious allegationsleveled at theboard.
Cox and Yoko Odom, a seasonal worker for the board of elections, also stated that the training of election workers was insufficient. Cox recalled an incident from the 2009 municipal elections when Montgomery was standing beside a young voter at the polls and the young lady was attempting to change her address to a Winston-Salem State address. Cox said he informed the young lady of residency requirements for voters and that if she put false information on the form, and she didn’t live at Winston- Salem State University, it would be illegal. Odom corroborated Cox’s version of events.
“I am not going to jail for anybody in violating the laws,” Odom said. “Mr. Cox stated in his timeframe that there was something — and he did state it — but he also came back today and inferred he did understand I was leaning and depending on him with these voters because I did know what these students were trying to do. So I’m here to state that any and all accusatory allegations made against me must be proven and that I am not a part of any fraud in regards to voting or anything else.
“During this time when Mr. Derwin Montgomery was running for the East Ward, there were several students from Winston- Salem State that did not live on campus, and yes, they were wanting to vote for him,” she added. “However, we were stressing the law once we were retrained per se, because there’s a short training period for one-stop workers — one day, it went to two — so every worker is not going to know the law effectively. However, my job, I need to know what’s going on and so I did not break the law.”
Dickerson had a different explanation for the high number of cards returned from Winston-Salem State University after the 2009 election. He said they were returned as part of a list maintenance procedure performed every two years by the board of elections. The list maintenance began in
February. Dickerson said the board cross checked the names on the returned cards against people who actually in the East Ward primary and found only six or seven votes cast during early voting.
“We wanted to see if there was something systemically going on here that they maybe they were delayed that allowed people to vote without being checked,” Dickerson said.
However, several members of the audience voiced their concern that the board of elections did not confirm that the addresses claimed by Winston-Salem State students were valid and legal.
PJ Lofland, an election worker with 20 years experience, said during the 2008 presidential primary, workers had a difficult time with groups escorting voters inside the voting booth and Coffman was loathe to enforce the rules. Lofland said a representative of the “black coalition” brought one group after another and she would typically take voters in the booth and cast their ballot for them.
“Did they request assistance?” Dickerson asked.
“I don’t think there was any issue of that,” Lofland replied. “She just took each one in. And it was tolerated up until one little old man threw a big fit out here in the lobby in front of a very long line of people, that she had voted for Barack Obama instead of Hillary Clinton… Well, at that point, finally, Mr. Coffman did something when there was such a ruckus outside that it was causing other people to go, ‘Hey, there’s something wrong.’” The board will reconvene on Feb. 23 at 1 p.m. to continue reviewing alleged election law violations. The board also has on ongoing investigation into allegations of unprofessional conduct towards employees by Coffman, which will be handled as a personnel matter in closed session.
After more than four hours of testimony that was highly critical of the board of elections, Coffman made a brief statement in response.
“I just want to publicly say that I appreciate my staff,” he said. “They have done an excellent job. And I have some former disgruntled employees that don’t want to be former employees that are unhappy about the process. I don’t ask my staff to do anything illegal. We run accurate elections. Every election is a learning time, but I have the same group of disgruntled employees that seem to not be able to give up. I think it’s time to give up.”