Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt and his staff may be the hardest working people in Guilford County government right now.
For weeks, they’ve been sifting through votes, identifying issues with absentee ballots, researching protests and addressing issues related to the governors race.
When Collicutt was asked if his staff was racking up a lot of overtime, he didn’t hesitate before answering.
“Oh, yeah,” he said quickly, sounding like it’s going to be a lot of overtime when it’s all said and done.
For instance, the Board of Elections held a meeting on Monday, Nov. 21, to hear protests over some ballots cast. Those ballots were contested because, allegedly, the voters who cast them lived somewhere else or were felons who weren’t entitled to vote.
At a previous meeting, the Board of Elections had disallowed one protested vote because the voter had cast an early vote and then died before Election Day. North Carolina law states that, when that happens, the vote should be disallowed. Most of the time, those votes remain counted since they aren’t generally protested.
However, many votes are being contested this year due to the close nature of the race between Gov. Pat McCrory and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.
At the afternoon meeting on Nov. 21, in the Blue Room of the Old Guilford County Court House, the board addressed protests filed by Clark Porter, who had submitted a list of voters he claimed should be ruled ineligible because they had cast votes elsewhere or were felons who had not had their voting rights restored.
The three members of the Guilford County Board of Elections are Chairman Kathryn Lindley and Don Wendelken, both Republicans, and Jim Kimel, a Democrat. At the Nov. 21 hearing, Lindley asked if anyone there wished to speak in support of the protests regarding one list of nine names of voters that Porter alleged had voted elsewhere. It became apparent that no one wanted to speak in support of the protest and Lindley looked at Porter, who was sitting at the back of the room.
“Mr. Porter,” Lindley said, “you filed this protest; do you intend to speak with regards to this protest?””
“Not at the current time,” he said.
One couple who moved to North Carolina from Wisconsin in August, Sam and Karen Niehans, wanted to speak in their defense and they were sworn in.
“We’re from Wisconsin, but we registered here,” Karen Niehans said.
She said that the clerk of the elections office in Wisconsin had sent them a notice asking them if they needed an absentee for Wisconsin.
“I said, no, we had already registered here,” she said. “We had moved here. I was very impressed with their work, that they had checked up on us to see if we wanted to vote.”
She said it was absurd to think she had voted in Wisconsin and North Carolina.
“I’m not going to run all the way back to Wisconsin to vote,” she said, reiterating that the only thing that happened is that clerk called to verify there was no need to send an absentee ballot.
“I said, ‘Thank you so much for checking,’” Karen Niehans said. “We have just moved to North Carolina so we won’t be needing Wisconsin ballots. You make us proud of Wisconsin’s efficiency.”
The two were clearly agitated that they were having to defend themselves and their right to vote when there was no indication they had done anything wrong. Karen Niehans asked why someone could just pick them out and claim they had voted twice with no evidence. She asked how their names were picked.
“How does a person get to do that?” she asked the board.
Wendelken informed her that voting records are public records that anyone can access.
Lindley added that how someone voted is not known.
“We know who but we don’t know how,” Lindley said.
“So I can just say [about someone], ‘I don’t think she voted correctly and I am turning them in?’” Niehans asked.
“If you have some kind of evidence,” Wendelken said.
“Do we get to know what this evidence was?” she asked.
Board members said they could provide her a copy of the protest. That protest form, however, does not offer any evidence.
“I’m sorry,” said an obviously perturbed Karen Niehans. “We have voted for almost every election for all our lives. We never had it like this. We moved there [Wisconsin]; we didn’t have a problem voting. Never did. We weren’t from Wisconsin. He’s trying to say we did do something. We didn’t do that.”
At the end of that hearing, Karen Niehans said, “I assume our votes will count.”
The board eventually did count their votes.
When Karen Niehans went to get her jacket, one sympathetic woman in the audience joked to her, “Welcome to North Carolina.”
After that, Niehans made a beeline for Porter and asked him why he was doing this to them, but Porter did not appear to offer any explanation. When the Rhino Times asked Porter about the protest, he referred all questions to an attorney working on behalf of the governor.
After the discussion, the board considered protest of other voters who allegedly were convicted felons who hadn’t had their right to vote restored. No one spoke in defense of the protest either.
Collicutt was sworn in and said what he knew about the matters and stated that he was not well versed in criminology. Collicutt said his had staff looked at the North Carolina Department of Corrections website but in many cases he was little to no help.
For one of those listed as a felon, Collicutt said, “The public information I got on him did not identify him as committing a felony. But I’m not an expert in this field.”
In another case Collicutt said, “This one really does show my limitations.”
The felony conviction issue is fairly straightforward in North Carolina. A North Carolina State Board of Elections pamphlet states, “If you have completed all parts of your sentence for a felony conviction or have been pardoned, you are eligible to vote in North Carolina. To avoid potential difficulties with registering and voting, you should ask for your Certificate of Restoration of Forfeited Rights of Citizenship from your releasing officer. This is not necessary to register or vote, but may make it easier should you encounter any problems.” The felon is required to reregister.
Collicutt’s difficulty at times was trying to determine if some voters in question had actually committed felonies.
Scenes like that have been happening in counties all over North Carolina due to similar protests lodged across the state.
All this activity comes at the end of the election cycle where elections staff has had to make a number of adjustments on the fly because of court rulings on Greensboro’s redistricting and the voter ID law.
Last week, McCrory requested a statewide recount in the governor’s race.
As of Friday, Nov. 25, the board had made determinations on whether to count or not count provisional ballots; 622 counted and 1,070 were disallowed.
Collicutt’s staff, along with the Guilford County Board of Elections, also counted absentee by-mail ballots received by Monday, Nov. 14, with a postmark of Election Day or before, as well as military and overseas ballots that were received by Thursday, Nov. 17. The board disapproved 544 absentee by-mail ballots because the voter didn’t complete the return application – for instance, because there was no signature or there were no witnesses or only one of the required two witnesses had signed.
Collicutt said that on election night the county checked the veracity of the recorded votes by a statistical sample. Election officials conducted an audit of paper rolls compared to electronic tabulation for two randomly selected precincts.
Kimel said that in all of these cases the board is trying to do the right thing. He said he was uncomfortable voting to disallow a vote from the voter who died before Election Day after casting an early vote.
“I don’t think that’s exactly right – but that’s what the law says,” Kimel said.
He also said it was disturbing to watch the hearing with the Niehans.
“This is just my two cents worth, but I think it is terrible to file a protest with no evidence.” Kimel said. “You get good people like the Niehans who have to sit here and be cross examined. They didn’t do anything wrong. And they were brought here because Mr. Porter filed a complaint with no evidence – I guess with no evidence. No evidence was presented; it was just a list of names. I don’t know how they voted, but I felt so sorry for them. I thought that was just wrong. But that’s just me.
“I’m just sorry they left with such a bad taste in their mouth. You can go through the phone book and write down names.”
He said that one good thing is that the board very often agrees despite having a Democrat and two Republicans.
“Most of our stuff is unanimous and, quite frankly, most of it is cut and dried,” he said.
Lindley also made a statement along those lines.
“We try really hard to follow the law and do what we think best and most of the time we’re in agreement,” she said.
Kimel also said it’s hard to imagine that this process could make a difference in a governors race.
“I don’t see thousands of votes here,” he said.
At one point in the harried process, Wendelken offered a little consolation for the hard working elections staff: On one of the busiest days, he bought pizza for the whole staff.
When Wendelken came in the office to get a piece for himself, one of the workers called out, “Thanks for the pizza.”
“Just doing my civic duty,” Wendelken responded.