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Local board attempts to fire Forsyth elections director

by Jordan Green

jordan@yesweekly.com @JordanGreenYES

A mistake by the elections director in Forsyth County leading to a result in the Tobaccoville Village Council election that was later overturned triggered a petition by his local board to request his dismissal.

Forsyth County Elections Director Rob Coffman has faced controversy before over alleged election irregularities and inappropriate remarks to employees and colleagues, but he managed to keep his job after an investigation by a Democrat-controlled board and a lawsuit filed against him by former employees was dismissed. But less than six months after a new Republican-controlled board was seated, Coffman’s fortunes appear to have changed.

Board Chairman Ken Raymond and Stuart Russell, the two Republican members, are petitioning the State Board of Elections for Coffman’s dismissal. Fleming El-Amin, the sole Democratic member, did not join the petition. Raymond and Russell allege that Coffman did not relay an inconsistency between the initial machine count and a later hand-to-eye count for the Tobaccoville Community Center precinct for the village council race. The two board members concluded that Coffman either “wanted to lead Mr. Russell to believe that no recount was necessary” or that Coffman “was reckless in responding to Mr. Russell’s question.”

As a result of that and other incidents of alleged misconduct, the two board members said they have “lost confidence in Mr. Coffman to provide them with reliable information, ensure the integrity of the voting process, and uphold the respect of his office.” The election involved three candidates vying for two seats on the village council. A tie for second between incumbent Lori Shore-Smith and Steve Wood led Shore-Smith to request a recount, one of two that would occur before the election was ultimately settled.

During the first recount, Forsyth County Republican Party Chairman Scott Cumbie said he witnessed a ballot get counted twice for Wood.

“When I witnessed the recount, I raised an objection to the executive director, which was noted with a casual comment that he trusts his machines more than the people,” Cumbie wrote in a letter. “My objection was not addressed and the final count containing the extra ballot count was accepted as the final count. This left the two candidates in a tie for second requiring a ‘game of chance’ tie-breaker.”

Cumbie said in an interview that a comparison between the ballots issued and the tally of votes provides an opportunity to “mathematically determine whether a miscount occurred.” The tally includes votes and what are known as “undervotes,” a term for when a voter skips a particular contest. The votes and undervotes should add up to the number of total ballots issued. Cumbie said that in the village council race, in which voters could choose up to two candidates, there were two more votes than the number of ballots issued, “which is mathematically impossible.”

The petition for Coffman’s dismissal states that after Wood was declared the winner through a random draw to break the tie, Cumbie reported what he viewed as an irregularity in the recount to Stuart, one of the two Republican board members. Russell called Coffman four days after the recount “to confirm whether there was an actual discrepancy,” according to the petition. Coffman responded by e-mail later that day by providing Stuart with a chart that reportedly confirmed that the numbers were consistent.

The following day, Coffman e-mailed all three board members to report that he had been wrong.

“I feel I need to communicate with you an error I made in reference to the recount,” Coffman wrote. “Stuart [Russell] asked me to report to him the number of ballots cast in the Tobaccoville election. I should have gone back to the election-night returns to determine the number of ballots cast. I instead used the vote totals from the recount. This was my error and not any of the staff were involved in it. I apologize for it and I now understand what data I should have reported.”

The next day a second recount was held and Shore- Smith was declared the winner, reversing the outcome.

Coffman declined to comment last week except to say that he is preparing a response to the petition for his removal. State law leaves the ultimate decision to the State Board of Elections. If the state board opts to initiate proceedings for termination, then it is required to give the county director “an opportunity to be heard, present witnesses and provide information” before a final decision is made.

Termination of county elections directors, whose employment is supposed to be insulated from political pressure, is rare in North Carolina.

“For all hundred directors across the state, the law says we can’t be fired without cause,” Guilford County Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said. “Every board has their own threshold of what cause is. Every board is tasked with administering elections; the directors are the liaisons to the board. I don’t know the facts of the case or what they’re saying Rob has done. Is it truly something that he’s done that would have an effect where the threshold for cause has been reached?”

Whiff of partisanship As part of its case for dismissal, the two Republican board members allege that Coffman has exhibited disrespect towards the Civitas Institute, along with board chair Ken Raymond. Civitas Institute describes itself as “a research and public policy organization dedicated to providing conservative solutions for North Carolina’s pressing issues.”

Civitas Institute received $1.4 million, or 87 percent of its income, in 2011 from the John William Pope Foundation, along with $25,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation. Civitas Institute’s primary benefactor is the family foundation of Variety Wholesalers.

The company and foundation are both headed by Art Pope, who also serves as deputy budget director under Gov. Pat McCrory. Other organizations funded by the Pope family fortune have been instrumental in getting conservative Republicans elected to the NC General Assembly.

Civitas Institute employee Susan Myrick took an interest in a longstanding challenge the Forsyth County Board of Elections has had with getting voter cards returned from the post office at Winston-Salem State University. The cards are sent out to determine whether voters still reside at their listed address. After a certain number of times set by state law that the cards are returned, voters are placed on inactive status and eventually removed from the rolls. Problems with the return of voter cards from Winston-Salem State have raised suspicions among some that ineligible votes have been cast from the precinct serving the university.

Myrick, for one, found Coffman’s handling of the voter cards to be wanting.

“The games Coffman is playing with voter verification and list-maintenance are doing a disservice not only to the student voters at WSSU but all voters in the county,” Myrick opined in a Sept. 18 article. “Coffman has played fast and loose with the rules as director of elections in Forsyth County, and it’s time for the Forsyth BOE to rein him in.”

In a subsequent article published on Nov. 21, Myrick contends that Coffman responded to a public records request for voter cards returned from Winston- Salem State University by providing some cards that she did not ask for and by not providing some cards that she did ask for, effectively sewing confusion.

The petition for Coffman’s removal alleges that Coffman spoke with Raymond in a heated tone during an Oct. 1 phone conversation in which he stated that “Civitas is worse than the tea party.”

The petition also indicates that Raymond felt disrespected by a voicemail in which Coffman said, “Ken, this is Rob Coffman. Would you call me please? Even though I say you never return a damned call, it’d be nice if you would just once.”

The two Republican board members contend in the petition that “Mr. Coffman’s repeated derogatory statements about the Civitas Institute in light of its pending [public records] request” undermine the board and the public’s “confidence in the objectivity” of the office.

The petition also references an allegation that Coffman called a former temporary employee “a crack ho.” Coffman told YES! Weekly in 2011 that he attended a sensitivity training as a result of the remark.

CONTINUING CONCERNS ABOUT WINSTON-SALEM STATE

Ken Raymond made a personal visit to Winston-Salem State on Aug. 30 to investigate the status of hundreds of voter cards that elections staff had identified as missing, and reported at a Sept. 3 meeting of the board of elections that he had discovered a total of 584 cards at the campus post office, according to the petition.

The Republican board members faulted Coffman for not independently counting the cards “to establish a chain of custody.”

The petition noted a discrepancy of 27 voter cards between the number counted by Raymond and the number provided in response to the public records request by Civitas Institute. Coffman’s failure to count the cards, the two Republican members contend, leaves it unclear as to whether Raymond miscounted or the 27 cards went missing.

“Such poor record keeping is unacceptable and harms the public’s trust in the FCBE’s ability to maintain the integrity of the elections process,” the petition charges.

Concerns about the integrity of the vote at Winston-Salem State are not new.

In early 2011, university employee Arthur Hardin wrote in a prepared statement to YES! Weekly that amidst the Winston-Salem municipal election in September 2009, the housing office was asked “to verify the list of students who had registered to vote following a complaint received by the board of elections. All but two of those names were verified as living in on-campus housing. The BOE indicated that they removed those two students from the registered voters list and removed their corresponding ballots from the election returns.”

YES! Weekly also obtained a statement from a former student, Christopher Mickens, who said that he voted in the East Ward city council election under a previous campus address, but lived in a different ward at the time. Citing privacy rights, the university has declined repeated requests by YES! Weekly to provide a copy of its campus housing roster to determine how many students voted during the 2009 election using the university address while living off campus.

Following the general election of 2009, board minutes report that “a large mailing of voter registration cards” returned from Winston-Salem State University “a few months later than the usual amount of time.”

Rebecca S. Pope, a board of elections employee, wrote in an affidavit obtained by YES! Weekly: “In 2009, we processed a large number of returned voter cards from Winston-Salem State University. These cards should have been returned months earlier. Since they were [returned] after the election results were official, the impact of the illegal votes were disregarded. Because of the untimeliness [of] the return of the voter cards the voters are verified and in the system as legal voters instead of being removed.”

Under Democratic control, the Forsyth County Board of Elections investigated Coffman in 2011 and found no merit to allegations of election law violations.

Frank Dickerson, a Democrat who served on the board prior to the changeover to Republican control, said the university was a source of frustration.

“We had some issues with Winston- Salem State; it was hard to get them to comply with the rules,” Dickerson recalled. “One of their employees was sending out e-mails urging people to vote for Democratic candidates. It raised a lot of people’s hackles. It raised my hackles as a Democrat.”

But he suggested that none of those issues should be laid at Coffman’s feet.

“I’m sorry this has happened to Rob because I thought he did a good job of running elections for Forsyth County and I think it will be a loss to us if he’s fired,” Dickerson said. “I thought we had a pretty good elections guy who I never thought for a moment was being dishonest in the way he ran elections.

“He’s very competent and I think he understands elections well,” he added. “In terms of running elections we’ll be lucky to find someone who is as competent.” !

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