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Wednesday, 21 February 2007 00:00

Election controversy plagues Swain

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When Commissioner Glenn Jones pulled into the Stillhouse Branch trailer park in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Swain County last October, he’d strayed far from the campaign path of most candidates.

 

The trailers were banged up, dented, dirty, and rusty. “Beware of Dog” signs were rampant, with pit bulls staked to the front stoop of several trailers. Jones got out and walked up to April Fisher’s door, passing a hole in the side of her trailer patched with weathered plywood. Jones was there to ask for her vote, and Fisher was moved.

“I was very impressed with Glenn Jones,” Fisher recalled several months later. “He walked into my house and talked to me like I was a real person. He was the nicest person I ever met.”

But Fisher had never voted, didn’t know where to vote, and didn’t have a car. No problem, Jones explained. All she had to do was sign on the dotted line and a ballot would arrive in her mail box.

Jones had a strategic escort that day: the owner of the trailer park, Phillip Smith. Smith told Fisher to call when the ballot arrived. So she did, and the men came back to guide Fisher and her husband though the process of voting, not forcefully, but just in a helpful way, Fisher said. Fisher and her husband handed over their ballots when they were done.

The scenario was repeated over and over throughout Swain County last fall. In Jones’ crusade for re-election — a tough race that was ultimately decided by less than 200 votes — he systematically targeted the poor, elderly and disabled living in dense areas like trailer parks and nursing homes with his absentee voting pitch. Working in concert with a couple of main supporters, Jones pulled in at least 130 of absentee ballots — about 40 percent of the total absentee ballots cast securing his victory over Republican Jim Douthit.

Jones reached out to an often-overlooked population who welcomed his visit, based on interviews with more than 20 of the voters Jones targeted.

But the gung-ho efforts might have gone too far, potentially violating several state election laws (see the chart on the next page). State election officials were in Swain County early this week to look into complaints about absentee voting.

 

Trailer park talk

The absentee ballot crusade clearly targeted those unlikely to vote if left to their own devices. It usually wasn’t too difficult for Jones to get their support. Simply showing up at the door likely did the trick.

“I appreciate it when somebody running for office comes by to see me,” said Karen Messer, a trailer park resident. “I’m a single mom and a working mom, and that means a lot to me.”

Jones and Phillip Smith ultimately recruited 25 voters from the trailer park to cast absentee ballots. But two of those voters, Ron and Rhonda Bedsaul, have proved troublesome. They now claim Jones and Smith pressured them to vote a straight Democratic ticket under threat of eviction, and have filed an official complaint of voter intimidation with the election board.

But their story is vastly different than the one relayed by others living in the trailer park.

“I voted without anybody hanging over my shoulder. They made no innuendos about who I should vote for,” said Joyce Lindsay. “I was not coerced into doing anything.”

Lindsay said Jones and Smith did ask her party affiliation, which stumped her at first. The last time she voted it was for John Kennedy more than 40 years ago.

Uphill and around a few bends, Dorothy Shuler and her neighbor Dennis Shuler shared a similar account.

“They came by twice,” said Dorothy. “The first time we sat around and talked and they asked me what party I was. I said I was a Democrat, and they said that was the way they were trying to go. They came back a few days later with some paperwork.”

Dorothy said voting was so easy she would do it again. Smith and Jones even offered to mail the ballot for her.

“He said we didn’t even have to fool with that, they would take it for us,” Dorothy said.

“There wasn’t any pressure on us to vote any way,” Dennis added.

The Bedsauls’ controversial claim of voter intimidation is known throughout the trailer park, and residents were quick to counter it. A petition was recently circulated denouncing the Bedsauls’ accusation. The petition credits Jones and Smith with “trying to help the underprivileged people” understand the election process and “make their own decision upon which way to vote.” It was signed by everyone in the trailer park who voted an absentee ballot.

 

Absentee witnesses

While the Bedsauls’ accusation could fall flat if not corroborated by others, their complaint has brought scrutiny to the absentee ballot crusade in general, triggering an inquiry by the state election board that could lead down other paths if they are willing to look into it.

One discrepancy that emerged during an analysis of absentee voting by The Smoky Mountain News involved the signatures of witnesses on absentee ballots. Every voter must have two witnesses sign their absentee ballot envelope, verifying its legitimacy.

But it appears Jones and Willard Smith may have solicited witnesses to sign ballots who weren’t actually there. Willard Smith, an 82-year-old kingpin of the Democratic Party, was Jones’ top assistant in the absentee ballot crusade. Smith’s name appeared as a witness on more than 85 ballots.

The majority of absentee voters interviewed for this story recalled two men — Jones and Willard Smith — coming to their house. Jones was barred from signing as a witness since he was a candidate. That posed a problem when the voter lived alone. There was no one to serve as the second witness.

That was the case with Rebecca Reeves, who lives in an apartment complex outside Bryson City. Smith’s wife, Genevieve, signed Reeves’ ballot as a witness. But Genevieve wasn’t there, according to Reeves’ recollection.

“Willard Smith and Glenn Jones came by and asked me if I wanted to vote through the mail and I said I would,” Reeves said. “They came back by and picked it up for me. It was just Glenn and Willard.”

Reeves said she knows Smith’s wife, Genevieve, and Genevieve didn’t come. Genevieve’s name turned up on several ballots, including two ballots from the Stillhouse Branch trailer park. One of those voters, Karen Messer, said Genevieve was never there.

A name that commonly appeared as a witness in concert with Smith’s was George Arvey. Arvey lives in an apartment complex targeted in the absentee voting campaign. Somehow, his name ended up as a witness on the ballots of several voters who said they never saw him, like Darlene Mason, who lives in the complex. She said Jones and Smith stopped by to pick up her ballot.

“They checked it to make sure it looked OK and everything and they said it looked real good,” said Mason. Arvey was not with them, she said, yet his name appeared on her ballot as a witness.

The same is true of Leonna Medford — only Jones and Smith came by her apartment to help her with her ballot, according to Medford’s caretaker, Rhonda Thomas, who was there at the time. Jones went into Medford’s bedroom and helped her mark her ballot while Smith sat with Thomas in the living room, Thomas said. But Arvey’s name appeared as a witness on Medford’s ballot.

When asked about his involvement in absentee voting, Arvey said he helped Smith and Jones recruit voters within his apartment complex.

“I just worked this subdivision,” Arvey said.

Arvey said he ventured to only one other location, a home on School House Road, and “that was it.”

But Avery’s name appeared as a witness on ballots from numerous other locations, such as Black Hill Road and Carringer Street. When asked specifically about those locations, Arvey said he never went there. Voters from both places also said that Arvey was never at their home — only Jones and Smith. It is unclear whether Arvey signed these ballots himself or someone signed his name to them.

 

Mail men

Another potential issue: Smith and Jones systematically took voters’ ballots with the intention of mailing them. The ballots were sometimes in their possession for three to five days before making it in the mail.

According to state law, it is a felony for anyone other than a near relative or legal guardian to take a voter’s absentee ballot into their possession, even for the purpose of returning it to a county board of elections.

A postal worker at the post office reported seeing Jones enter the post office on occasion to mail stacks of absentee ballots. Mail passed across the counter gets a distinct Bryson City postmark, as opposed to mail dropped in a box outside or on the street. A review of the postmarks and stamps on ballot envelopes shows a distinct pattern of ballots being mailed en masse over the counter at the post office. Voters’ own recollections confirm it as well.

But it is unclear how the state will come down on this issue. State law allows any voter to request assistance “voting their ballot.”

“What is it to vote a ballot?” asked Robert Joyce, an election law expert with the Institute of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill. “If to vote a ballot includes taking it to the post office and mailing it, you would think it is OK to get someone to assist a voter in doing that.”

But the law also states you can’t be in possession of someone else’s ballot.

“It appears to be a little bit of conflict in those two provisions,” Joyce said. “The statue not being clear enough is a defense of a charge of a crime.”

 

Nursing home halls

Another issue in the absentee voting crusade is Jones’ and Smith’s role helping nursing home patients vote. It is a felony to help someone in a nursing home mark their absentee ballot unless you are the voter’s near relative or legal guardian. But that’s exactly what occurred.

“They voted me somehow or another without having to go,” said Walter Smith, a patient at Autumn Wind. Walter said Jones and Willard Smith both came to his room about voting. Willard Smith marked his ballot while Jones handled the paperwork, Walter said. Willard is Walter’s cousin, but that doesn’t count as a near relative under election guidelines.

Smith and Jones also voted the patient across the hall, Harry Mitchell, according to absentee voting records. But Mitchell doesn’t remember voting.

“I’m not sure. I can’t say for sure if I did or if I didn’t,” Mitchell said when asked if he voted last fall.

At Mountain View Manor, Smith helped at least three patients vote, according to his signatures on their ballots. Two of those — a husband and wife — were unable to write, with only an “X” appearing on the voter’s signature line. Smith served as a witness for both of their ballots. The second witness? Another “X.” It appears Smith had the husband and wife who couldn’t write witness each other’s ballots that Smith had marked for them. He also applied for their ballot on their behalf, according to his signature on their ballot request form, which is a felony.

Patients in a nursing home can only be assissted by a near relative or legal guardian, no exceptions. Joyce, the election law expert, said the intent of the law was to protect nursing home patients from being taken advantage of. “This is like taking a sledge hammer to deal with that problem,” Joyce said. It could disenfranchise nursing home patients without a near relative willing to help.

 

Best intentions

Whether Smith and Jones went by the book, remains to be seen. Some could argue their intentions were good. Not a single voter interviewed by The Smoky Mountain News was unhappy about their voting experience. There was universal satisfaction in the assistance they received.

“I just turned 40 this year and this was the first time I ever voted,” said Darlene Mason. “I’ll tell you the truth, I would not have voted otherwise.”

Mason is now registered to vote thanks to Jones and Smith and hopes to vote in the future. Smith said that’s largely what motivated him.

“At least 75 to 80 percent of the people we helped wouldn’t have voted otherwise,” Smith said. “Everyone that I went to was really happy that we come. We helped anyone who wanted us to. They appreciated it. It ought to be easy to vote.”

Smith said they didn’t force anyone to vote who didn’t want to. But most wanted to if a ballot would come in their mail box.

“They don’t have to climb down steps. They don’t have to stand in line. They don’t have to get around a bunch of people. They don’t have to do anything but have a ballot come to them and vote in the privacy of their own home,” Smith said.

Troy Herron, a senior citizen in an apartment complex, was very grateful for the opportunity.

“I really wanted to be able to vote,” Herron said. He was most interested in the race for Congress.

“I wanted to be able to vote against whoever was in power,” Herron said. Herron said the country is in a mess and he felt this election was critical, more so than most.

“I voted exactly the way I wanted to if I was going to vote. These people made it possible,” he said.

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