Frye sworn in as Forsyth clerk of superior court after board of elections dismisses Polston protest

by Keith Barber

Susan Speaks Frye is sworn in as the Forsyth County Clerk of Superior Court by District Court Judge Denise Hartsfield as her daughter, Monnette Carter, holds the Bible during an impromptu ceremony at the Forsyth County Hall of Justice on Dec. 17. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Susan Speaks Frye walked with a purpose in her step as she traveled a single block from the Forsyth County Government Center to the Forsyth County Hall of Justice on the afternoon of Dec. 17.

Minutes earlier, the Forsyth County Board of Elections had dismissed a protest by Jeff Polston, the Republican candidate for Forsyth County Clerk of Superior Court, and ruled that Frye — who defeated Polston by 551 votes in the Nov. 2 election — should be sworn in immediately as the new Clerk of Court.

“I’m ecstatic right now,” Frye said as she walked briskly along 2nd Street. “I’m just really excited. I’m glad they finally made a decision. I’m ready to start working.”

Thirty minutes later, District Court Judge Denise Hartsfield administered the oath of office as Frye’s daughter, Monette, held the Bible, and scores of employees of the clerk of court’s office witnessed the impromptu ceremony in a third floor courtroom. Applause filled the room at the ceremony’s conclusion.

“It’s been a hard six weeks but we’re here,” Frye said. She thanked all the employees of the clerk’s office for their show of support.

“People believed in me,” Frye said. “Them standing behind me is just another part of it.”

During a board of elections meeting on Dec. 14, the three-member board agreed to hear three allegations of election law violations leveled by Polston, including that a voter was allowed to cast a ballot after the polls had closed on Nov. 2, that an election worker cast ballots for two people without asking them who they wanted to vote for and that poll workers restricted the movements of an election observer at the Polo Recreation Center precinct.

When the hearing opened on Dec. 17, Polston vigorously questioned Forsyth County Elections Director Rob Coffman about voter registration of students at Wake Forest University and Winston-Salem State University.

Polston asked for Coffman to supply him with a list of students who used “0 WSSU” as their mailing address. Polston contended that “O WSSU” is not a valid mailing address. Board chair Linda Sutton, a Democrat, said she did not see the relevance to printing out a list of all voters registered at the address. Board member Frank Dickerson, a Democrat, agreed with Sutton.

“There is another forum and another process to attack voter registration,” Dickerson said.

Board member Jerry Jordan, a Republican, asked Polston for evidence of illegal voter registration.

Polston did not present any direct evidence of illegal voter registration.

He pressed on, asking Coffman about voter identification cards being returned to the board of elections by the US Postal Service as undeliverable. Coffman confirmed that voter ID cards are sometimes returned as undeliverable and the board of elections generates a confirmation mailing. Polston then mentioned Winston-Salem City Council member Derwin Montgomery’s victory in the 2009 municipal elections and stated a significant number of voter ID cards of Winston-Salem State students were returned to the board of elections.

Sutton instructed Polston to stick to issues that arose during the 2010 elections. Polston quoted state law that deals with establishing residency

as it relates to election law.

NC General Statute 163-57 states: “To legally change a domicile, there must be an actual abandonment of the first domicile with the intent not to return to it, and the acquisition of a new domicile by actual residence at another place with the intent to make that new place a permanent home.”

Dickerson asked Polston if he was saying that students who go home for summer break cannot claim that the university is their permanent residence.

“Yes,” Polston replied. Polston then moved on to alleged irregularities at Precinct 405, which contains registered voters from Winston-Salem State. Poll worker Seth Taylor claimed that Evelyn Sanders, a precinct judge, intimidated him after he challenged Winston-Salem State students when their current address didn’t match the address in the board of elections database.

Sanders also testified during the hearing, and explained that she pulled Taylor aside when she overheard him asking young voters if they were students at Winston-Salem State. Sanders said she received directions from the board of elections that it was improper to ask voters if they were Winston-Salem State students.

Taylor also told the board of elections that people who lived outside Forsyth County cast ballots at Precinct 405. Sanders denied Taylor’s assertion. Dawn Matthews, a judge at Precinct 405, also denied Taylor’s claim that illegal ballots were cast.

Jordan asked Taylor why he didn’t call the board of elections on Nov. 2 to voice his concern regarding alleged violations of election law.

“She’s the chief judge,” Taylor said, referring to Sanders. “That’s her job. You’ve got major problems and you’re trying to sweep them under the rug.”

Polston then called Ralf Walters as a witness. Walters said he worked as a poll observer at Precinct 704 on Election Day. Walters said a voter came in after the polls had closed and was allowed to cast a ballot. Walters said he observed chief judge Susan Martin call the board of elections and get the instruction to allow the voter to cast their ballot.

“There are some really deep issues about the process,” Walters said. “I saw so many irregularities — it was borderline chaos.”

Polston then called Frye to testify. “Did you ever give money to people to vote?” Polston asked.

“No,” Frye replied. Polston then called his final witness, Gardenia Henley. During the Dec. 14 board meeting, Henley said she had shared information with Sutton regarding alleged illegal voter registration, fraud and mismanagement by the board of elections. But Henley was not in the hearing room when she was called Dec. 17.

Sutton appeared to refer to Henley’s claims, when she stated that some issues had been discussed with her but citizens should share information with the entire board.

In his closing statement, Polston returned to his overarching theme of the registration of college students. Polston claimed that almost 900 students over and above the on-campus housing capacity of Winston-Salem State participated in the 2009 municipal elections.

“The most important thing we determine in registering people to vote is determining an address where we can go and find them,” Polston said.

After a 30-minute recess, the board responded to the allegations leveled by Polston. Jordan spent considerable time reviewing state statute as it relates to a student’s right to vote.

He pointed out that NC General Statute 163- 11 clearly states: “So long as a student intends to make the student’s home in the community where the student is physically present for the purpose of attending school while the student is attending school and has no intent to return to the student’s former home after graduation, the student may claim the college community as the student’s domicile. The student need not also intend to stay in the college community beyond graduation in order to establish domi cile there.”

The board acknowledged there was substantial evidence to show that one voter cast their ballot after the polls had closed, but the body unanimously rejected Polston’s protest after determining there was no substantial evidence of any violation, irregularity or misconduct to cast doubt on the results of the election.

Jordan said he is glad that citizen concerns about the election process were brought to light during the hearing.

“Are there some problems in the voting area? Sure there are,” Jordan said. “There’s nothing that’s going to be perfect. Are there problems in the voting process that could affect the outcome of a race? I’m sure there are. I think that we may need to take a look at how we register students.”

Sutton echoed Jordan’s sentiments. “We have various issues that we will continue to address and try to correct so that we can have better elections,” Sutton said. “This is not a perfect process.”

Jordan asked the board to dismiss Polston’s protest and direct Coffman to issue a certificate of election to Frye so that she could be sworn in by 5 p.m. The gallery applauded Jordan’s suggestion.

Under state law, Polston can appeal the Forsyth County Board of Elections’ decision to the NC State Board of Elections.