By Jonathan Austin
Jan. 13, 2011 edition
The N.C. Board of Elections has been conducting a criminal investigation into the recent Yancey County general election since “before election day,” Gary Bartlett, the executive director of the board, has told the Yancey County News.
That has been confirmed by a Yancey election official. “There is an investigation ongoing,” said Charles W. McCurry, the chairman of the Yancey County Board of Elections. “The state board sent folks up and seized all absentee and one-stop ballots, and all material related to those.”
McCurry said a state investigator was in Burnsville on election day, apparently acting on complaints filed by voters in the county.
Bartlett agreed, saying, “We had a presence (in Yancey County) on election day,” meaning a state investigator was in the county on and even before that day. Asked when the investigation may have first been considered a criminal - rather than civil - situation, Bartlett replied: “since before election day.”
McCurry said two election technicians showed up after the November election and took custody of a carful of paperwork. Asked if they used a warrant to seize the material, he replied: “They have absolutely total access. They needed no warrant. We are a county board that operates under the supervision and direction of the state board of elections,” which means the state board already ‘owns’ the data.
He said the two technicians - Karen Brinson and Jennifer Sparks – seized the items. Asked if the material was computer files or paper, McCurry said: “This is not software. There is actually a paper trail; the absentee envelopes … the absentee ballots, the one-stop ballots, the absentee requests.” He said the amount of paperwork seized was “probably in the neighborhood of 350 to 400 lbs. They brought a Ford Taurus; the trunk was full, the back seat was full.”
Asked if the State Bureau of Investigation was involved, he replied, “I have no way of knowing. I have no clue.”
Bartlett said the state board has the staff and authority to conduct criminal investigation and the power of arrest, though he said the board can and will seek assistance from other state law enforcement agencies if their assistance can help. He declined to say whether the State Bureau of Investigation or federal authorities are assisting.
Regarding the scope of the investigation, McCurry seemed to suggest that the state may be investigating complaints concerning the handling of absentee ballots by unauthorized people. “I feel like it is (involving) inappropriate contact with people and inappropriate conversations with people” regarding their votes. “I don’t know that there’s any vote buying or anything like that, but I think when there’s smoke, there’s fire; and the state board of elections thinks there’s smoke.”
McCurry said the investigation is not into actions taken by the board or the election office staff. “What anybody does outside that board office or with an absentee ballot has nothing to do with the board. It has everything to do with the citizens who get that ballot. If there was wrongdoing, it was done away from that office.
McCurry didn’t specifically say the investigation involved the collection or witnessing of absentee ballots, but as he spoke he described actions that would be considered criminal. “ If somebody does something with that ballot, it’s a felony. Anybody can witness an absentee ballot. The only requirement is that you actually see the voter who voted that ballot put that ballot in that envelope. You must witness the voter put that ballot in that envelope. You sign the back of the envelope. If you didn’t see (the voter put the ballot in the envelope) and you sign it, you committed a felony.”
McCurry said state law authorizes few people to legally handle an absentee ballot after the voter has sealed it in its envelope. “Authorized persons are family members, he said: “the mother, father, brother, sister, wife” or similarly close blood relatives. “If anybody else takes that ballot to a mailbox, they’ve violated the law. It’s a violation to take possession of any absentee ballot.”
Asked if there could also be possible federal violations, McCurry said it is possible depending on what occurred before the ballot was mailed. “If there was actual fraud that took place, and it was mailed through U.S. mail, it is a postal law violation. You’ve got to remember, there were federal elections in this ballot. The feds will pick that up.”
McCurry said the penalties for such a fraud are tough and serious: “Violations of election law will send you to the penitentiary. When you take somebody’s right to vote away, the state and feds don’t like that. When you have a groundswell of people calling and complaining, they have to sit up and take notice.”
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