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Lake Santeetlah voter fraud allegations remain at a standstill

Contention over the results of the 2021 municipal election in Lake Santeetlah continues, as another one approaches.  Cory Vaillancourt photo Contention over the results of the 2021 municipal election in Lake Santeetlah continues, as another one approaches. Cory Vaillancourt photo

It’s been more than a year since residency challenges were filed against six Democrats who registered to vote at a Graham County home that had burned down and then avoided the challenges by changing their registrations to Buncombe County; the North Carolina State Board of Elections still hasn’t announced the results of an investigation into the matter, even after three of the six re-registered in Graham County, just in time for the 2023 municipal election. 


“I’m disappointed that we have not had the state actually seriously look into this matter,” said Diana Simon, a member of Lake Santeetlah’s Town Council who filed the challenges. “Other municipalities that have a majority of second-home owners, this matters in their elections.

In June 2022, Simon filed a series of residency challenges  against eight individuals that she and others said didn’t live in their tiny, rustic vacation home community and therefore shouldn’t have been allowed to vote in the 2021 municipal election.

But vote they did, along with others who live within the corporate limits of the municipality — resulting in a 62.5% increase in voter turnout over the previous election and the ouster of two incumbents, flipping the board in favor of an anti-zoning faction that subsequently cut lake water testing, slashed kudzu removal, attempted to defund the zoning administrator and attempted to abolish the town’s zoning codes.

On July 7, 2022, the Graham County Board of Elections determined during a three-hour   preliminary hearing  that there was probable cause to suspect that all eight of the challenged voters did not actually reside at the Lake Santeetlah addresses they provided to elections officials when they registered to vote.

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In a subsequent 10-hour quasi-judicial hearing on Sept. 28 in Robbinsville, John Emerson and his wife, Council Member Tina Emerson, were cleared of wrongdoing despite evidence to the contrary  after the Graham BOE determined that voters there could establish legal residency simply by declaring their “intent” to reside in the county.

Alleging that the Emersons actually reside near Charlotte, Simon’s attorney, John Noor, presented witness testimony, homeowners insurance policies, voter history, warranty deeds, photographs and water bills, which were seen as inconsistent with regular habitation of the lake house.

Simon has since appealed the ruling to superior court. A year later, there’s been no movement on the case. Tina Emerson still serves on Council, and John is still registered to vote at Lake Santeetlah.

The other six people against whom complaints were filled — Dean Hutsell, a veterinarian with a practice in Buncombe County, his wife Linda, and their daughters Amelia, Kaylee, Olivia and Savannah — registered to vote at Lake Santeetlah in 2021 by using the address of their lake house, which had burned down in 2019 and didn’t have a certificate of occupancy until this past August.

The Hutsells, however, avoided a quasi-judicial hearing by changing their voter registrations back to Buncombe County just before the proceedings against the Emersons took place.

Because the evidence against the Hutsells was never heard in Graham County, it now appears that voters can register at an unhabitable home, vote from that address and avoid accountability so long as they re-register at another address outside the county prior to any voter challenge proceedings against them being heard by a county board of elections.

There is a backstop to such tactics, but it doesn’t appear to be working efficiently, or at all.

Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, told The Smoky Mountain News on Oct. 5, 2022, that her agency was looking into the matter to determine if there were any possible violations of the law.

When SMN requested updates from the investigation on Feb. 15 of this year, NCSBE Public Information Officer Patrick Gannon told SMN that the “State Board staff are reviewing details of this situation, but we do not have any substantive updates to provide at this time. We hope to have more information in the near future.”

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When SMN again requested updates from the investigation on Aug. 3, NCSBE General Counsel Paul Cox told SMN, “the State Board can confirm that it considers the information alleged in the voter challenges to be complaints of criminal violations. All complaints of criminal violations are reviewed and investigated by the State Board’s investigations division, as warranted by the evidence and the law.”

Last week, when SMN again requested updates from the investigation, Gannon said, “This matter is still under investigation. It’s an unusual set of facts and circumstances, and as with all investigations, we want to make sure that we are thorough in our process.”

During follow-up questioning, Gannon was asked to cite specific investigatory actions taken by the BOE over the past year against the Hutsells. Gannon was also asked how many investigations were currently being conducted by the NCSBE, how many investigations have been resolved this year and whether he felt his agency had enough resources to conduct investigations in a timely manner.

Gannon didn’t respond, even though the situation has now taken on an added urgency, just a month prior to the upcoming election in Lake Santeetlah.

On Sept. 20, Dean and Linda Hutsell registered to vote in at the lake house in Graham County. Amelia Hutsell, one of the six challenged voters, was registered there that same day.

“What they have done in this application is say that they have taken residence, that they’ve lived here 30-plus days before they changed their registration [to Graham County], but they do not,” Simon said. “Their home is not occupied and has not been occupied.”

Two other Hutsells not listed in the original complaint, Malina and Amelia, also registered at the lake house on Sept. 20.

Two more Hutsells listed in the original complaint, Kaylee and Savannah, retain their Buncombe County registrations as of press time.

Absent a ruling from the NCSBE, all of the challenged voters will be eligible to vote in the upcoming election.

“This has been going on for two years. People have been fraudulently registering to vote. You’d think it could be resolved before this election. This is a small municipality, this is a small election,” Simon said. “It seems to not be important to the state.”

Dean and Linda Hutsell did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

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