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State fires Forsyth County elections director

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com @JordanGreenYES

Rob Coffman has been terminated as elections director for Forsyth County.

The decision came in a letter from State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach last week in response to a petition by the two Republican members of the Forsyth County Board of Elections for Coffman’s removal.

Strach said her decision was based on Coffman’s handling of a recount in last year’s Tobaccoville Village Council election, which she called “extremely troubling.”

“The public must be able to trust election officials in providing accurate election results,” Strach wrote.

“Accurate election outcomes are the most important duty of a director of elections. Director Coffman’s conduct regarding the Tobaccoville recount, his apparent disregard for ensuring an accurate result, and his failure to provide complete and truthful responses in his reply to the petition are unacceptable for a person in this position of public trust. Based on these actions, I am not confident that Director Coffman can fulfill his obligation to the voters of Forsyth County to provide fair and accurate elections.”

The recount arose when the initial tally resulted in a tie among the second- and third-place finishers in a contest for two seats on the village council.

Despite a discrepancy between the hand count and machine count that was observed by the county Republican Party chairman, the first recount again resulted in a tie, and the winner was determined by a random draw. Later, Coffman determined that he had made an error, and a second recount was held, in which it was determined that the other candidate actually received more votes.

The letter did not make clear whether the termination was effective immediately, but Coffman was not working on Tuesday and couldn’t be reached for comment. Judy Speas, an elections employee who serves as clerk to the local board, said she expects the board to address Coffman’s termination at its next meeting at 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 27.

According to state law, Strach’s decision to fire Coffman is final unless a member of the state board exercises the right to call a hearing to allow the county election director the opportunity to present witnesses and information. In that case, the state board could overturn Strach’s decision. State board members have 20 days to call a hearing, if they choose to do so.

“Considering a petition to terminate the employment of a county director of elections is one of the most important duties I am tasked with carrying out,” Strach said in the letter. “It is a duty I do not take lightly. I believe it should be given the highest consideration and investigation.

She added, “I have the highest regard for our county election directors and understand the incredible responsibility they have to ensure fair and accurate elections. I understand with that responsibility come daily challenges that our voting public and sometimes our own county board members rarely come to realize.”

Strach said two other allegations made by the two Republican board members, Chairman Ken Raymond and Secretary Stuart Russell, did not warrant termination.

The board members alleged that Coffman showed disrespect towards Raymond and the Civitas Institute.

Coffman reportedly left a voice-mail message for Raymond, stating, “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.” Another statement referenced the right-leaning Civitas Institute, which was investigating alleged election irregularities on the campus of Winston-Salem State University through a public records request. Both Raymond and Russell said Coffman stated, “Civitas is worse than the tea party.”

The board, including Democratic member Fleming El-Amin unanimously voted reprimand Coffman for the statements. As a result, Strach said, the matter had already been addressed.

Strach said, however, that she was troubled by Coffman’s written response to the allegation when he denied making the statement about Civitas Institute, instead saying he compared “Civitas as having similar ideology as the tea party.” Later, when Strach interviewed Coffman, she said he admitted to making the statement alleged by Raymond and Russell. “When asked why he did not simply admit to the statement that he made,” Strach wrote, “he replied that he was trying to ‘sugar coat’ his statement in his written response.” Coffman reportedly told Strach he was frustrated with what he considered to be a lack of communication between him and the chairman. In response, Strach wrote, “I do feel it appropriate to remind everyone involved that it is critical for county boards to have open and frequent communication with their director, especially before board meetings.”

She added, “The failure of a board to communicate with their director before a board meeting about an issue they wish to take action on could result in action being taken that is ultimately detrimental to the voters of the county, simply because board members did not possess the information they needed to make an informed decision.”

Strach also indicated an allegation by the two Republican board members that Coffman misrepresented the number of voter registration cards retrieved from Winston-Salem State University could not be substantiated. The issue arose when Raymond personally went to the campus post office to pick up the voter registration cards. When, subsequently, Civitas Institute made a public records request for a list of the cards, the numbers did not align.

“I am troubled by the discrepancy in the numbers, but I have no evidence that anyone — including Director Coffman — tampered with those cards after delivery,” Strach wrote.

She added that it would have helped for staff to count the cards on delivery to establish a clear chain of custody. But Coffman could not be blamed because he was out of the office at the time, and Raymond did not alert staff that he planned to bring the cards in.

“While I do not believe it was contrary to statute for Chairman Raymond to retrieve the cards from Winston-Salem State University,” Strach said, “I believe it may have eliminated confusion with the card-count discrepancy if staff had been involved with the retrieval of those cards from Winston-Salem State University.” !

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