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Election official concerned about voters being unduly influenced

The Swain County Board of Commissioners heard concerns from a county election board member last week over the adequacy of the county’s early voting station.

John Herrin, a member of the Swain County Board of Elections, told the commissioners that the early voting site is inadequate and the county should work quickly to secure a new site before the fall election season. The early voting site is a small room adjacent to the election office in the county administration building. Election staff can’t observe what is going on in the room, which creates the potential for undue influence on voters by those assisting them, Herrin said.

Early voting has been the subject of controversy in recent county commissioner elections. Democratic Party leaders known as the “machine” have developed a successful formula for turning out voters during the early voting period who support their candidates. Even in primary elections when Democrats run against Democrats, the “machine” recruits and promotes a slate of candidates.

During early voting, the machine makes an orchestrated effort to provide transportation to those who would not otherwise vote, from elderly who are unable to drive to the polls to those who need extra motivation.

The success of the early voting drive carried County Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones to victory in the May primary. Votes cast solely on Election Day favored challenger Ronnie Barker, but an overwhelming number of early votes for Jones tipped the count in his favor. All the candidates backed by the machine pulled in a disproportionately large number of votes during early voting compared to votes cast on Election Day.

Some in the community have questioned whether the early voting drive is above board. Those given rides to the polls are often escorted inside by candidates themselves and members of the Democratic Party machine. Some are elderly and need assistance voting. Since election staff cannot see what is going on the early voting room, Herrin is concerned whether some voters are being influenced by those helping them vote.

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“No one can answer the question as to improper activity within this area,” Herrin said. “If no one is there to observe this, then who can assure that such didn’t go on.”

Joan Weeks, the election director, disagreed. She said only voters who specifically ask for help get it.

“Any voter is entitled to assistance if they request it,” Weeks said. “The voter themselves must state to us they want assistance. No one can bring someone in and just say ‘I’m going to help them.’”

Weeks said early voting drives help increase voter participation.

“Most of them are older people and if it wasn’t for someone coming to get them they wouldn’t come vote on Election Day,” Weeks said.

But those being brought to the polls are only a portion of those who take advantage of early voting. Weeks said nearly all the county workers vote early since they work in the same building as the election office. County workers get the day off on Election Day, so instead of making a special trip, they all vote early. Weeks said lots of professionals with busy jobs vote early in case they are tied up come Election Day.

Herrin said he is not alleging that improprieties are taking place. The current set-up creates the potential for improprieties, however, and should be rectified.

Herrin pointed to the obvious variation in early voting results versus Election Day results in the May primary. Herrin said the county has no way of knowing whether the deviation is legitimate or not.

“Election staff can’t attest to the fact they had proper or improper assistance,” Herrin said. “We have to maintain the polls better so we can rule out any discrepancies.”

Herrin has raised concerns over the early voting site with the other two members of Swain County’s election board in the past. He has even written letters to the state election board in Raleigh. Herrin, the only Republican on the election board, is typically the odd man out, however.

At a meeting of the county election board in late June, Herrin managed to bring the issue to a vote, calling for commissioners to be formally notified that the early voting site is inadequate. Election board member Donald Cooper voted for the motion. According to discussion, his primary concern was the cramped quarters, and not the lack of observation over early voting.

“They felt the space is too small,” Election Supervisor Weeks said of the discussion at the meeting.

Neither the chairman of the election board, Russell Childers, or Weeks notified commissioners of those concerns.

“We just don’t have a bigger space,” Weeks said.

Herrin decided to notify the commissioners himself, however.

“As it stands right now, we’re not satisfied with what we have,” Herrin told commissioners at their meeting last Tuesday (July 25). “It’s 12 weeks until the election. I have reason to be concerned we should be moving forward (on a new site).”

Childers, who heard that Herrin would be at the commissioners meeting, showed up as well. But when Herrin invited Childers to comment, he declined.

“It’s your meeting. I’m not the one who came to the meeting,” Childers told Herrin.

Commissioner Chairman Jones asked Herrin if he was speaking on behalf of the election board. Herrin told Jones the election board had voted to notify the commissioners that the early voting site was inadequate. Herrin turned to Childers for affirmation that such a motion had indeed passed, but Childers claimed he couldn’t remember.

“I don’t remember what the motion was, John,” Childers said.

Jones did not seem to share Herrin’s concerns either.

“We’ve always had elections and seemed to work things out,” Jones said.

Jones told Herrin that if the election board had concerns over the early voting site, they should come to the commissioners as a group to express their concerns, ending the discussion for the meeting.

Herrin has another concern about the location of the early voting site. It is down the hall from the county commissioner chairman’s office. It is also in close proximity to other elected county posts, such as register of deeds.

“This does not allow for appropriate boundaries — either physical or assumed — in order to keep candidates who may well serve within the same building in close proximity from being able to influence others as they come to early voting at the very least with their presence,” Herrin said.

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