Forsyth election critic casts doubt on results of local elections

by Jordan Green

The group assembled in the meeting room at theReynolda Branch Library for a programentitled “Truth Be Told in Forsyth County”last week included both blacks and whites,unaffiliated and Democratic voters, but skewed a bitRepublican.

The presenter, JoAnne Allen, a registered Democrat,didn’t mince any words.“There’s a lot of corruption and a lot of voter and electionfraud in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County,” she said.Allen reprised several allegations of state and federal electionlaw violations that were aired in early 2011 followingcomplaints by former elections workers and a number ofcandidates that were defeated in election contests.

“Election fraud is when you manipulate election computers,”Allen said. “That’s what’s being done here in ForsythCounty.”The three-member Forsyth County Board of Elections, whichincludes two Democrats and one Republican, investigated allegationsof voter fraud in early 2011 and “found no credibleevidence of intentional violations of the voting laws.”

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

“It does not matter how many people you go and get to votefor you,” Allen told the audience of about 20 people, includinga Republican candidate for NC House and an unaffiliated candidatewho is trying to get on the ballot for county commission. “IfRob Coffman, Linda Sutton and that alliance group do not wantyou to win, guess what? You will not win.”Sutton said later: “We have the newspapers, as well as the SBIthat looked into it. The state Board of Elections found that theynot see any voter fraud. I’m not going to rehash it.”As a prime example of the alleged fraud, Allen told theaudience at the library that election servers were networked inForsyth County from 2006 to 2009.

“These servers were connected in 2008,” she said. “Now, do Iknow whether President Obama won North Carolina honestly ornot? I don’t know.”Asked whether citizens should hold confidence in the result ofthis year’s highly contested presidential election, in which NorthCarolina is expected to play a crucial role, Coffman said, “TheForsyth County Board of Elections provides accurate electionresults and accessible voting to our citizens. Nothing has beenproven otherwise.”

Allen told the audience at the library that under the HelpAmerica Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002, it is illegal tonetwork election servers.Networking election servers is not illegal under federal law,according to two national election experts, but Candice Hoke, anassociate professor of law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Lawwho is recognized as an expert on election technology, said in ane-mail that the practice is “inferentially barred.”

Hoke said the legal duties under the Help America Vote Act“for accuracy and auditability can be silently, covertly defeatedby opening the server to the internet. The [local election office]would likely never know their server was ‘owned’ from abroad,which could be a teenager down the street or a North Koreangovernment hacker, or a black-hat hacker paid to intrude.”Hoke likened networking servers to “having a safety depositbox where there are a number of back doors into the vaults.”

“While the network and servers could be configured not toallow such activity, all the scientific studies have shown that thesoftware running the elections (from every vendor) allow easydisabling of such remote access protections, followed by easein changing the vote totals or ballot definitions, and then ease inerasing the audit logs of operating activities so that there is literallyno trace where there should have been records,” Hoke said.“I would argue that it is illegal under HAVA to connect tabulationservers to the internet (and unconstitutional as well), thoughthese points have not been legally established in the court yet,”Hoke continued.

“Also, it is consummately dumb to do so ifthe [local elections offices] have any desire to produce accuratetotals and fulfill their legal duties to protect voting rights.”Gary Bartlett, executive director of the NC Board of Elections,said at the time that Coffman had remotely accessed the ForsythCounty Board of Elections’ Unity Election System, which formatsballots, programs election equipment and tabulates results,during an out-of-town conference.

Bartlett’s staff instructed theForsyth County Elections Office to discontinue the practice andCoffman complied.Allen also alleged that Forsyth County contracted with a consultant— James Dalton, a former employee of Election Systemsand Software — without a competitive bidding process andwithout appropriate approval from the county commission.“So, you see, it was never even bidded on,” Allen said.

“Theygave it to him. The man made, I think it was $15,000 off of twoor three times coming to Forsyth County. This is the same personwho was friends, still is friends with Rob Coffman. But it nevergot to the county commissioners because anything on that needsto go to them so they can vote on that.”The county provided three contracts for professional serviceswith Dalton Consulting in response to a request by YES! Weekly,each in the amount of $4,500 that were signed by County ManagerDudley Watts, along with representatives of the county’slegal and finance departments, in March 2008, September 2008and October 2009 respectively.

The services included ballot layout and coding, and accuracytesting, in addition to election-day supportThe county’s budget ordinance allows the manager to executeprofessional service contracts under the amount of $50,000without a vote of the county commission. Watts said under thegoverning state statute, professional services purchases by thecounty are not required to be let for bid.“This to me did not look unreasonable in terms of the servicesprovided,” he said.

“It to me looked like a fairly technical reviewof something that requires a lot of technical expertise, andI thought it made sense because you want elections to goright.”The allegations continued at the library meeting.“We’re talking about a director that actually put blankballots into the system to be counted,” Allen said. “That’show you stuff ballots. And then, when he was caught onetime… he put it on staff: ‘Oh, somebody put 25 extra ballotsin here.’ That doesn’t make any sense.”

Allen said the revelation that Coffman had attempted toengage in ballot stuffing came to light during a 2010 recountconducted at the request of Republican clerk of courtscandidate Jeff Polston when 25 blank ballots were found in aprecinct box. Coffman said he vaguely recalled the incidentbut questioned how it led Allen to conclude that he was attemptingto manipulate the results of an election.Minutes from a Dec. 14, 2010 meeting indicate “Mrs.Sutton requested Mr. Coffman explain the process that occurredduring the Precinct 404 recount. Coffman explained that after theballots were counted, the total ballots was 25 ballots higher thanthe total amount from election night. After examining the ballots,it was found that apparently the precinct judge had inadvertentlyplaced blank, un-voted ballots in a voted ballot container.

Whenthe un-voted ballots were removed from the ballot container fora second count during the recount process, there was no discrepancyfrom the amount of total ballots on election night.”Neither the discovery of the blank ballots nor the recountitself changed the outcome of the election, and Democrat SusanSpeaks Frye was ultimately sworn in as clerk of court.Allen said during her presentation: “There are people still atthe board of elections who actually saw Rob Coffman countballots by himself. And, of course, the statute tells you that youhave to have at least two of the board members there when youcount those ballots.”

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

VanderKlok later told Don Wright, general counsel for thestate board: “The election law violations, like… the absenteeballots — from the time I’ve worked there, there’s never been aboard member present when they were counted.”Wright and VanderKlok quickly dropped the subject in theconversation, which VanderKlok recorded, and Wright told YES!Weekly the local board was responsible for investigating theallegation.

“We all want fair elections without fraud,” said Debra Conrad,a county commissioner who attended Allen’s presentation. “It’sup to the board of elections to make sure there’s no fraud. We allwant to make sure everything is by the books. What’s true andnot true, I don’t know.”Conrad, who is a candidate for NC House in District 74, saidshe came mainly to listen.Allen suggested to her audience that there is no room in themiddle.

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