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Hearing date set for Lake Santeetlah voter fraud charges

At least some of the voter challenges at Lake Santeetlah will move forward this month. Cory Vaillancourt photo At least some of the voter challenges at Lake Santeetlah will move forward this month. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Weeks after a hearing by the Graham County Board of Elections found probable cause to suspect that eight individuals had submitted fraudulent voter registrations in the tiny municipality of Lake Santeetlah, eagle-eyed observers noted six of the voters accused have re-registered in other locations.

The late move might not be enough for them to escape accountability. 

In advance of the 2021 Lake Santeetlah Municipal Election, Dean Hutsell, his wife Linda and their four daughters all registered to vote  at Lake Santeetlah, all on the same day. 

The three-bedroom house they claimed as their residence had burnt down in 2019, was without a certificate of occupancy and had yet to be rebuilt at the time of their registration. 

All six Hutsells went on to vote in that Municipal Election, during which several incumbents including Mayor Jim Hager were swept off the Lake Santeetlah Town Council. The tiny municipality has few actual residents, but many seasonal inhabitants. Only 75 votes were cast in 2019, but almost 130 were cast in 2021. 

Diana Simon, an incumbent town council member who was reelected, filed registration challenges against the Hutsells as well as against John and Tina Emerson. Tina was one of three new people elected to the council. 

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In late July, the Graham County Board of Elections conducted a preliminary hearing on Simon’s eight challenges and found unanimously that there was probable cause  for all eight of them to proceed to a formal hearing, which has been scheduled for Sept. 28. 

After subsequently voting in the May 17, 2022 Primary Election from Graham County, Dean and Linda changed their voter registrations from Lake Santeetlah back to where they’d been previously registered for decades, in Buncombe County. 

Records from the North Carolina State Board of Elections now show Dean, Linda and their daughters, Amelia, Kaylee and Savannah, have all registered at an address on Lambeth Walk in Buncombe County — the address at which Simon alleged the Hutsells have always lived. 

Olivia Hutsell is currently registered in Wake County, which is where her Facebook profile said she was living when she registered and voted from Lake Santeetlah. 

Despite allegedly providing false voter registrations, and then voting in one or more elections from the allegedly fraudulent addresses, the Hutsells’ current lack of registration could spell the end of the formal proceedings against them in Graham County. 

“If there is no registration to challenge, then the challenge proceeding would be moot,” said Patrick Gannon, Public Information Director for the North Carolina State Board of Elections. “If the county board confirmed this, the proper course would be to dismiss the challenge as moot.”

However, Gannon did say that the Hutsells may not yet be out of trouble, despite the registration swaps. 

“If there is evidence of a violation of election law, our investigations division will investigate and refer violations to the district attorney as warranted by the evidence,” he said. 

Given that much of that evidence was already presented by Asheville attorney John Noor on behalf of his client Simon, and accepted by the Graham County Board of Elections, the Hutsells may end up seeing further legal action taken against them. 

“We presented evidence at the preliminary hearing that the house burnt down, a new building is currently under construction and the board concluded that there was probable cause that they are not properly registered to vote,” Noor said. “We look forward to the state board of elections doing their job and investigating any violations of election law that may have occurred.”

Noor also said he’s prepared to move forward with the remaining challenges against John and Tina Emerson on Sept. 28. 

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