Larson seeks recount in South Ward city council race


by Jordan Green

John Larson is requesting a recount in the South Ward city council race, where the official canvass shows Carolyn Highsmith prevailing by six votes. Elections staff acknowledges that 18 people were prevented from voting in the race because they received the wrong ballots.

Carolyn Highsmith is now the certified winner of the Democratic primary for the South Ward seat on Winston-Salem City Council, prevailing over opponent John Larson in a margin that evolved from four on election night, to one after absentee ballots were counted and finally to six after provisionals were added and the official canvass was completed.

Highsmith, a longtime community leader from the Konnoak Hills neighborhood, was sitting in the second row when Forsyth County Elections Director Tim Tsujii announced the results around 3:45 p.m. on Thursday: 2,023 votes to Larson, and 2,029 votes to Highsmith.

Larson, a vice president at Old Salem Museum & Gardens, indicated in a statement posted on Facebook after the canvass that he will seek a recount.

“Carolyn and I both agree that a recount is in order since this has been such a tightly contested race,” he said. “Although I would not anticipate a significant shift I appreciate her acknowledgement that this final chapter must be written to bring full closure to what has got to be one of the closest races in the county’s history.”

The open seat is being vacated by Councilwoman Molly Leight, who had endorsed Larson.

The three-member board of elections approved 225 complete provisional ballots and 144 partial ballots, while rejecting 580 out of a total of less than a thousand across the county. The partial ballots included 94 in which voters received the wrong party ballot or a ballot for the wrong precinct. Voters who received the wrong party ballot only had their votes counted in the state bond referendum — the only nonpartisan item on the ballot.

Of the 580 rejected provisional ballots, the vast majority were tossed out because the voters were either not registered, or because their registrations or provisional ballots lacked signatures. The board also disapproved 39 voters who lacked photo ID, under a new requirement that took effect with the March 15 primary. Those voters were given the opportunity to appear at the board of elections by March 21 at noon to present their ID, but none did so. Meanwhile, the board approved nine provisional ballots issued to voters who filed a “reasonable impediment” declaration with a satisfactory reason for not having photo ID — an exception added to the new election law through an amendment last summer.

However, the Republican majority on the local board voted to reject a provisional ballot completed by one person who filled out a “reasonable impediment” declaration to vote without photo ID during early voting at Polo Park Recreation Center because the form lacked the voter’s signature. Tsujii said it was the poll worker’s fault for failing to inform the voter that their signature was needed. Staff attempted without success to reach the voter by phone to obtain the signature after the fact, Tsujii said.

Board Secretary Stuart Russell argued that the signature was essential because it would have shown the voter was aware of the legal consequences of being untruthful.

“I think it’s very unfortunate,” said Democratic board member Fleming El-Amin, who cast the lone dissenting vote. “This reflects poor training of the poll workers.”

Tsujii agreed.

“It is unfortunate that this happened,” he said. “But I will, in my power, work to improve this and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Larson and his supporters left the canvass meeting concerned about voters at Precinct 607, located at Shepherd’s Center near the main campus of Forsyth Tech, who were denied the opportunity to vote in the South Ward race because poll workers mistakenly gave them ballots for the Southwest Ward, where there was no primary. George Bryan, one of Larson’s campaign co-managers, said he spoke to a couple who went to the polling place specifically so they could vote for Larson and were surprised to find that he was not on their ballots.

Tsujii confirmed that the board of elections identified 18 voters in Precinct 607 who received the Southwest Ward ballot in error. Larson carried the precinct by a margin of 59.1 percent to 40.9 percent. With Highsmith’s margin of victory coming down to six votes, the 18 voters prevented from voting could have easily changed the outcome.

“We have all the addresses for the voters,” Bryan said. “It’s very easy to get in contact with them and give them the opportunity to rectify it. To be true to the spirit of democracy you want to give everybody the opportunity to vote.”

Tsujii said after the certification that the board couldn’t give the voters the opportunity to vote a second ballot that included the South Ward contest because their original ballots, which were cast on election day, cannot be retrieved, considering the need to maintain the sanctity and privacy of the voting process.

“There’s a process where a candidate can protest the election and can contest the results,” Tsujii said. “If it’s determined that additional steps need to be taken that needs to go to the state Board of Elections. In order to contest an election, you would have to show there were significant irregularities across the county.”

Tsujii said the error can come up in precincts that are split between two voting districts, and that to prevent it from recurring staff needs to implement additional pre-election checks to ensure that poll workers are aware of the different ballot styles at each precinct.

Tsujii reported to the local board that 12 provisional ballots were fed into a tabulation machine and counted in error on the March 15 primary. As with the voters who were prevented from voting in the South Ward race in Precinct 607, the 12 provisional ballots cannot be retrieved. In two cases, Tsujii said the voters took their provisionals and fed them into a tabulator while poll workers were not paying attention. Tsujii said that in future training sessions he’ll remind poll workers to be diligent and aware, and might consider stationing a poll worker at the tabulator to prevent voters from taking measures into their own hands. Unlike Guilford County, which utilizes electronic voting, voters in Forsyth County fill out paper ballots that are counted by machine.

The local board unanimously rejected 20 provisional ballots because of missing signatures. Tsujii said that 10 voters showed up at the wrong precinct, and were redirected to their proper precincts. They should have voted on regular ballots, but instead the poll workers gave them provisional ballots and failed to obtain the voters’ signatures on the transfer forms. Another 10 signed the transfer forms, but failed to sign the “authorization to vote” form.

El-Amin said he voted to reject the provisional ballots after consulting with the general counsel for the state Board of Elections in Raleigh, but expressed concern that the voters were unfairly penalized.

“Given the level of provisional ballots we had this year and the short-term training of our poll workers, most of these errors fall in the lap of the poll workers, not the voters,” El-Amin said. “We need to have a way of not just talking to people who come in to get trained but some way to evaluate them before you send them out.”