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Wednesday, 17 January 2007 00:00

Voter intimidation alleged in Swain election

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Two Swain County residents claim they were victims of illegal voter intimidation during the November election.

 

Ron and Rhonda Bedsaul say they were forced to apply for an absentee ballot and then vote a straight Democratic ticket or be evicted from their trailer park in the Alarka community, according to sworn affidavits taken from the Bedsauls. The complaint has been turned over the N.C. Board of Elections for further investigation.

The Bedsauls claim the owner of the trailer park, Phillip Smith — along with Swain County Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones — went door to door in the trailer park getting residents to register to vote. A few days later, the men returned and made the Bedsauls fill out requests for absentee ballots. When the absentee ballots arrived in the mail, the men appeared a third time, told them how to mark the ballots and then took the ballots with them.

John Herrin, a Republican on the Swain County Election Board, took sworn affidavits from the Bedsauls documenting their claim. Herrin shared the affadavits with the rest of the election board at its meeting last week.

“They were literally sat down at a table over a ballot and told what place to mark and the ballot taken back out of their hands,” Herrin recounted to the election board. Herrin said there are others who had similar experiences, but they are not willing to come forward publicly at this point.

Copies of the affidavits were promptly faxed to the state election board in Raleigh, which will handle the investigation.

The first step is to determine whether the complaint has merit. A preliminary inquiry will be conducted, akin to a probable cause hearing, according to Gary Bartlett, director of the state election board.

The state will then decide whether to conduct a full-blown investigation. If criminal charges are warranted, the election investigators will turn the evidence over to the district attorney. Not every complaint of election fraud is founded.

“Most of the complaints we have investigated turn out to be rumor,” Bartlett said.

The state election board investigated accusations of vote buying in Yancey County after the recent election, but found it wasn’t true. Bartlett said the mountains are more prone to these complaints than other areas of the state.

Complaints are more likely to crop up when there has been an aggressive voting drive. Observers from the opposite political camp will exaggerate the actual circumstances of the campaigning.

“The closer the election is and the more competitive each side is in their campaign, these things tend to come up more,” Bartlett said.

In terms of the incident in Swain County, it’s not illegal for a candidate to go door to door asking people to register to vote. There’s also nothing wrong with going door to door encouraging voters to apply for absentee ballots. While some might perceive this campaign tactic as intimidating, it is not illegal. Where the alleged incident crosses the line is threatening the voter with eviction if they didn’t vote a certain way and taking their ballot from them.

Bartlett said the complaint seems a bit tardy, however.

“The thing that concerns me at the moment is why was this not brought forward right after the election?” Bartlett said.

Herrin said it took a while to hear about the incident and verify it. He did not want to bring a complaint forward unless it had been checked out and seemed legitimate.

“Time was not a factor in gathering facts and interviews,” Herrin said. “There was no reason to bring forth something that might or might not be true until I was sure. My only concern at the time was whether the Bedsauls’ rights to vote had been violated.”

 

Standard deviation?

A cursory look at absentee voting in Swain County turns up several curious patterns.

For starters, the absentee voting results were quite different than results witnessed on Election Day. A far greater percentage voted straight-party Democratic ticket during absentee voting than on Election Day.

• 40 percent voted a straight-party Democrat ticket in absentee voting versus 19 percent on Election Day.

• Of those who voted a straight party ticket, 86 percent voted straight-party Democrat during absentee voting versus 59 percent on Election Day.

There are a few legitimate explanations, however. Absentee voters do not always mirror the general population that turns out on Election Day, according to Chris Cooper, a political science and public policy professor at Western Carolina University.

“The person who votes using an absentee ballot is a different kind of person than shows up on Election Day,” said Cooper. “It is a more engaged voter and it is someone who is more partisan. Your independents are going to wait until the last minute to make up their mind.”

If absentee voters have stronger and more loyal party convictions, they are more likely to vote a straight party ticket than the masses on Election Day.

Absentee and early voters also lean Democratic. That was witnessed everywhere throughout the region in November with Democratic candidates faring better in early and absentee voting than on election day.

Swain County is already a lopsided county when it comes to partisan politics — with 2 registered Democrats for every 1 Republican. In a county that already leans Democratic, the tendency for absentee voters to be more partisan could have a ripple effect leading to an even more lopsided outcome.

“The direction is completely normal: for absentee and early voting to tend Democratic. The magnitude of it is, for whatever reason, larger than usual,” Cooper said.

Another interesting observation is the large volume of voters in Swain who applied for absentee ballots. Swain sent out more absentee ballots than either Jackson or Macon counties, which are almost three times as populous as Swain. Absentee voting in Swain rivaled that in Haywood County, which has more than four times the population of Swain.

The heavy volume of absentee ballots in Swain could be a sign of more passionate voters. For starters, there was more riding on the race between U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor and Heath Shuler than in other places. The outcome would make or break the future of the North Shore Road — a long-standing and heated controversy for the county — and voters were possibly more determined than ever on casting their ballots.

The volume of absentee ballots could also be a sign of a concerted campaign strategy. Until recently, absentee ballots were only for those who couldn’t vote in person on Election Day — such as those in the military, away at college or house bound. In 2001, the state legislature changed the absentee voting policy so anyone could apply for an absentee ballot and vote through the mail.

In Swain County, where there is a particularly strong and well-organized Democratic Party, party leaders simply might have done a better job getting the word out about the ease of absentee ballots. Absentee voting in Swain County was not dominated by the elderly who have difficulty voting in person, but was mostly people in the 40s, 50s and 60s.

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