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Election protests dismissed

SARAH LOWERY
and FRANK TAYLOR
Lincoln Times-News Staff

Records show elections staff shared concerns

The Lincoln County Board of Elections dismissed the protests regarding absentee ballot voting in the recent Lincolnton city elections with a 2-0 vote during a special called meeting Friday, but the matter is probably not settled.
Those who brought the protests had previously told the Times-News they anticipated this result and said Monday that their appeal to the state is in the works.
The elections board ruled that insufficient evidence existed to support the protests, but new information the Times-News has obtained from a public records request shows that even elections staff had such serious concerns about the absentee ballot requests in question that they sought guidance from the state board.
The Lincoln County board had scheduled Friday’s meeting in order to hold a full hearing on the matter following a preliminary hearing last week. As the Times-News previously reported, the results of any race will not be affected by the procedure. Rather, local Republicans are hoping to establish a consistent policy concerning absentee ballot requests in advance of statewide elections in 2012.
Lincoln County Attorney Wesley Deaton was present to preside over the meeting, and testimony was heard from Republican activist Martin Oakes of Denver, Tim Shain of Lincolnton — who lost his bid for the Ward IV council seat to Larry Mac Hovis and was granted power of attorney by his father-in-law Ed Mills, one of those filed a protest letter. Lincolnton City Council member Devin Rhyne, the sole Republican on the board and the signer of additional protest letters in the case, was present in person.
The three consolidated their complaints in the presentation of their case, which Oakes said centered around the method of requesting absentee ballots. He maintained that such ballot requests should only be valid if written entirely by the requester, which they believe was not the circumstance for 24 ballots.
Additionally, they requested that a handwriting analysis be performed by an outside expert and a formal investigation into all irregular activities be conducted by the local district attorney.
Deaton asked whether any of the requesters had been spoken to, and Oakes replied that they had not, adding that he didn’t think it was proper for them to do so. Deaton also questioned whether any of the individuals had known disabilities, which Oakes could not answer for sure but added that he did know of one.
Deaton also confirmed the vote difference in the closest race, which Oakes said was 62, thus noting on the record that the 24 protested ballots won’t affect the outcomes of the election.
Gary McConnell of Lincolnton also signed up to speak and offered a rebuttal to the protesters’ testimonies. He said he believed the protest was an attempt to deprive others of their rights and stressed that there was no evidence that individuals were under pressure to sign the requests or unwilling to participate in the election.
McConnell further added that the protesters should apply to the state Board of Elections regarding all ballots. He also noted that the state does not have a set process regarding absentee ballot requests, and “that’s why we’re here.”
Oakes then rebutted that a law regarding the matter was changed in 2002, with McConnell rebutting that Oakes believes the law should be common knowledge and that the individuals’ intent was not to break the law but to vote.
Board member Charles Cook then declared that the elections board was not “put here to analyze handwriting” but to ensure fair voting. Shain rebutted that the board should make sure there are no irregularities and that the law is followed.
Following a recess, during which Deaton advised election board members on the merits of the case and what options they had in terms of taking action, the hearing was called back to order. Cook made a motion that the protest be dismissed due to a lack of sufficient evidence of misconduct that would cast doubt upon the outcome of the election.
Chair Bob Richardson seconded the motion, and it was subsequently passed. Before the meeting was adjourned, Deaton noted that the protesters could appeal to the state board should they choose to do so.

Doubts preceded election
The Times-News made a public records request several weeks ago for Lincoln County board of elections correspondence related to absentee ballots.
Those documents show that some staff at the county elections office shared the same concerns now being voiced in the protests.
“I am very concerned about the requests that we are getting,” Valerie Wilcox, elecitons xxx, wrote to Johnnie McClean of the State Board of Elections on Oct. 24, more than a week before the Nov. 8 Election Day.
“A lot of them, I suspect are not signed by the voter. Mainly because most of the request (is) in the same handwriting. I have been told that I am not a handwriting expert, and I agree.” Wilcox continued, explaining that she had been handling those as requests for requests in an effort to address “the problem.”
An early request for open records to McClean was met with a characterization of this email as being primarily about a disabled voter, an issue that was addressed in another portion of the same email.
She had  no record or recollection of any response from she or anyone else at the state level. If the case is now appealed, the state may be called upon to decide what should be done, if anything, about the appearance of multiple handwriting on a ballot request and how, if at all, the 2002 law requiring a single person write the request can be enforced.

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