and SARAH LOWERY
Lincoln Times-News Staff
A state investigation into a possible voting fraud incident has been turned over to the Lincoln County District Attorneyâ€™s Office for possible prosecution.
Those protesting irregularities with absentee-ballot requests in this fallâ€™s Lincolnton elections say the case could have implications for their appeal to the North Carolina Board of Elections.
Assistant District Attorney Mike Miller confirmed to the Times-News on Tuesday that he has received the state investigative report and his office is reviewing it. There are no charges as of yet, he said.
Alonzo Odom was found in October to have voted twice, using different types of absentee ballots. He voted initially by traditional mail-in absentee ballot and then came to the polls in person on Oct. 21 to vote a second time by â€œone-stopâ€ absentee ballot.
Although a computer glitch temporarily allowed his over-vote, the situation was detected as soon as computer connections were restored, elections officials told the Times-News at the time.
The Lincoln County Board of Elections acted quickly to disqualify Odomâ€™s mail-in vote and remove it before it could be added to the count.
Under North Carolina law, an attempt to vote more than once can constitute felony voter fraud. As a result, all such cases are turned over to the North Carolina Board of Elections investigator, Marshall Tutor.
He said in October that he would finish his investigation and then share his findings with state election board executive director Gary Bartlett, who would decide whether it merited review by the local DA.
Although no one is saying what Tutorâ€™s probe found, it apparently was interesting enough to have the DA take a look.
Tutor told the Times-News on Tuesday that he sent his report to the DAâ€™s office about two weeks ago.
At the time the Times-News also reported that any other parties found to have colluded in an attempt to violate election laws could also potentially face prosecution.
Deputy Director of the N.C. Board of Elections Johnnie McLean told the Times-News on Oct. 25 Tutorâ€™s investigation would attempt to determine whether there was an intent to commit fraud and generate extra votes. She said the circumstances involving others in Odomâ€™s voting did need to be reported and looked at as part of the investigation.
Regardless of whether the situation leads to criminal charges, the case could play into the elections protests appeal being sent to the state this week.
Republican Party activist Martin Oakes of Denver, who helped organize the protests, said the number of ballots under protest was limited only because the narrow time window statutes allow for such protests prevented him from finding voters in additional precincts to help challenge additional suspect ballots. Under state law, a voter issuing a protest must live in the precinct where the ballot was cast, even in the case of an absentee ballot.
Oakes and others who have complained about the absentee ballot requests during city elections have said handwriting indicates that someone other than the voter filled out a large number of ballot requests, which would constitute a violation of state law.
He believes one individual was responsible for many of those requests and that Odomâ€™s absentee ballot request follows the same pattern, echoing comments he made in writing in October.
Oakes told the Lincoln board on Oct. 25 when it met to discuss Odomâ€™s case that he believed it was tied to a series of cases in which the law was being thwarted.
In a letter from Oakes to Lincoln County Elections Director Bill C. Beam reported at that time, he wrote, â€œas per statute, all instances of apparent voter fraud shall be referred to the local district attorney, and I call on you and the board to do so.â€
â€œItâ€™s my belief that the voter in question did not knowingly vote twice but that someone else manipulated the absentee ballot for this voter, and my primary suspect is the witness on the ballot envelope,â€ Oakes wrote.
â€œI believe the investigation should focus on the absentee ballot and should be extended to all ballots where the same person was involved in the process as in this instance and to all absentee ballot requests that appear to be in the same handwriting as this one,â€ he added.
Shortly after the election, Oakes worked with others to filed protests of more than 20 absentee ballot request. Since Odomâ€™s mail-in absentee vote had already been disallowed, it was not among those protested.
During a hearing on those protests Friday, the Lincoln County Board of Elections ruled that there was insufficient evidence that more than one person filled out the ballots being protested. Itâ€™s this ruling that is now being appealed to the state.
Correspondence from an elections office staff to the state board shows that the same concerns were raised in advance of the election, but the staff member was told she wasnâ€™t a handwriting expert.
One of the issues the state board may have to decide in the appeal is whether the law restricting who fills out absentee ballot requests is actually enforceable.
Effect on elections
Oakes and others involved in the protests have said they know the number of ballots in question would not swing the election result. Itâ€™s not even clear who those individuals back and sources have told the Times-News that the ballots in question include some cast by Republicans as well as Democrats and possibly unaffiliated voters.
The election itself ended in a split result. The biggest victory went to Republican Mayor John Gilleland Jr. who easily won re-election over former Clerk of Court Pam Huskey. However, the other two races on the ballot went to the Democratic incumbents on the City Council, Dr. John â€œLesâ€ Cloninger, who defeated Republican challenger Sam Ausband Jr. by a significant margin ; and Larry Mac Hovis, who pulled off a much closer defeat of Republican challenger Tim Shain.
Hovis margin of victory was the same as his advantage in absentee ballots.
In every race, Republicans outpolled Democrats on Election Day, but Democrats swamped them with both mail-in and one-stop absentee voting.
While it appears not enough ballots are in question to change anything, in theory that could change if the state board reviewing the appeal found indications of the sort of widespread mischief that the protesters have described. Possibly for that reason, the results of the election remain uncertified and the winners have not been sworn in â€“ a technicality since all incumbents won and are already in office.
Oakes has said he thinks Democrats benefited from an election strategy that Republicans used prior to 2002 when it was banned by the Legislature, aggressively requesting absentee ballots for voters expected to support the party.
Although he doesnâ€™t like the law, he wants to see it applied fairly in all cases. If the state board action or inaction in this appeal indicates an unwillingness to enforce the law, the result could be a free-for-all with both major parties pursuing the same strategy during the 2012 election cycle.