by Jordan Green
Chaotic early voting. Malfunctioning equipment. Misplaced ballots. Election-night confusion at the board of elections. Results changing overnight. What’s the matter with Forsyth County elections?
It looked like it was going to be a good election night for Kathie Fansler, a teacher running on the Democratic slate for one of the three at-large seats on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board.
When the Forsyth County Board of Elections posted early-voting totals just after the polls closed at 7:30 p.m., Democratic candidates held the top three positions, with Fansler in second. Elisabeth Motsinger held first place, and German Garcia, who looked like he would make history as the first Latino to serve on the school board, was in third.
It looked as if Democrats would sweep the at-large tier of the school board race, riding a wave of strong performances that included flipping the sole at-large seat on the county commission and expanding the margin of victory for the clerk of superior court from her last election four years ago.
But by 10:34 p.m. there was evidence of Democratic slippage. While Motsinger and Fansler still held the No. 1 and No. 2 spots respectively in the at-large race, Garcia had fallen from the coveted top three, with Republican Robert Barr taking third place. But the unofficial and incomplete reports did not include eight out of 101 precincts. Meeting its midnight press deadline for the following day’s paper, Triad City Beat reported, “Early returns showed Democrats picking up an at-large school board seat previously held by a Republican, with newcomer Katherine Fansler joining Elisabeth Motsinger, who was first elected in 2006.” Fox 8 WGHP leaned on reporting by the Winston-Salem Journal for an electronic post early the next morning: “A key win in the at-large race Tuesday means Democrats will have more seats on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board, but fell short in their bid to take over the board majority.”
The day after Election Day, Motsinger was celebrating. On her Facebook page at 8:14 a.m. she gave a “giant shoutout to Kathie Fansler, who worked hard and won handily her seat on the school board.” Later, in the same post, Motsinger added a stunned postscript: “Just in. Reviewed the results. Kathie did not win. I think I can’t breathe. Really.”
In the final balloting, Fansler had tumbled from second to fourth place, while Republicans Barr and Mark Johnson each moved up to second and third place respectively.
Everything seemed to go wrong during Election 2014 in Forsyth County, the first with Steve Hines, the new elections director, at the helm. Hines was appointed to the job over the summer, after his predecessor Rob Coffman was fired by the State Board of Elections in January because of errors in the Tobaccoville Village Council election that changed the outcome of the contest. The initial results indicated a tie — a nightmare for any elections director — but it turned out that there was a difference of one vote between the candidates.
A year after the Tobaccoville election fiasco, it was hardly a smooth maiden voyage for Hines. While other local election boards were sending their final results into the state around 11 p.m., the Forsyth County board was buckling down for a long night.
The first indications of trouble came when the chief judges at two suburban precincts, 13 and 32, reported the M-100 vote-counting machines were jamming. Rather than reading the results from the field, the elections staff decided to bring the ballots into the office downtown to be counted. By 11, Hines said, the board of elections already had the results from the remaining six precincts, but the board decided not to post the results. Partial — and inaccurate — results had already been posted in precincts 13 and 32, and absentee mail-in ballots had yet to be counted. Hines thought that if they posted all the precincts before they sorted out the problems in 13 and 32, observers would see that all the precincts had reported and consider the results final. He wanted to buy time.
Normally, he said, mail-in absentee ballots are posted early in the evening, right after early-voting totals. Since Democrats favor early voting and Republicans favor voting by mail-in absentee ballot, the two totals tend to balance each other out, creating a stable foundation for adding precinct returns. But the board was unable to read the mail-in absentee ballots early in the evening because of problems with a machine. Hines said the board also wanted to take their time to make sure they got the results in 13 and 32 right.
“If we loaded the last precincts, everybody would have said, ‘There are 101 precincts; that’s everything,’” he said. “We were trying to keep it unofficial as long as we could. That was the theory anyway.”
The Forsyth County Board of Elections finally reported their results to the state at 2:04 a.m.
“We were the last board in the state to send in our results,” said Fleming El-Amin, the sole Democrat on the three-member local board.
Republicans took control of the state and local election boards in 2013 as a perk of having one of their own in the Executive Mansion. It didn’t take long for the Republican majority on the Forsyth County Board of Elections to fire Coffman, an elections director who had worked for years under Democrat-controlled boards. New omnibus legislation passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature curtailing early voting, among other measures, gave rise to charges of voter suppression by Democrats. And a statewide effort to root out illegal voting by identifying non-citizen voters proved fruitless in Forsyth County.
Hines acknowledged that the optics of the overnight reversal were not good.
“It can happen that precincts that vote totally opposite come in late and throw the results the other way,” he said. “The more rural precincts tend to vote more Republican, while the inner-city precincts lean Democratic. It didn’t play very well that at 10:30 you’re in second place, but then when the final vote is in you’re the last one that isn’t in [one of the three winning positions].”
Yet many problems were still coming to light.
Staff at the board of elections office realized on the day after the election that they had not counted the curbside early-voting ballots.
“In the office, there were two schools of thought,” Hines explained. “One was that the curbside ballots should be kept in a lockbox. The other was that we should keep them with their applications. It was a procedural thing where we should have kept them in one place, but we kept them in two places. So we counted one batch, but not the other. That will be fixed for the next election.”
That wasn’t all.
In precincts 13 and 32 — the same ones that led to a halt in election-night reporting from 10:34 p.m. to 2:04 a.m. — both partial counts by the chief judges at the precincts and full counts by the board of elections at the office downtown were tallied. Hines said the board had planned to withdraw the partial counts and replace them with full counts, but simply forgot to pull the partial counts. Staff didn’t realize the error until they performed an audit the next day.
“I’m embarrassed,” Hines said. He also said that neither the neglected curbside early-voting ballot count nor the two double-counted precincts changed the outcome of any races.
Both precincts, whose polling places are located at Sedge Garden Elementary School near Kernersville and Northwest Middle School near Pfafftown, turned out to be pivotal in the outcome of the at-large school board race. In the final certified results submitted to the state on Nov. 14, only 318 votes separate fourth-place finisher Fansler from third-place finisher Johnson. But if either precinct had not been in play, the placement of the two candidates would have been reversed. Taking Precinct 13 out of the mix would have given Fansler an 11-vote advantage over Johnson, while removing Precinct 32 would have given her a 22-vote margin of victory.
If the two precincts had swung toward other Democratic candidates, suspicions of fraud would be justified. But the two suburban precincts lean Republican, and Fansler’s poor showing is consistent with other Democratic candidates. US Senate candidate Kay Hagan, who carried Forsyth County while losing her race, polled in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 percent in the two precincts. And Ted Kaplan and Susan Frye, two Democrats who won their countywide contests by about 55 percent, saw their polling numbers reversed in precincts 13 and 32. Hagan, Kaplan and Frye’s names were more familiar to voters than that of Fansler, a first-time candidate.
Local elections boards across the state certified their results and submitted them to the state in a process known as the “canvass” on Nov. 14. During the public comment section of the board of elections meeting, Fansler asserted, based on her review of two Chain of Custody forms, that in 11 (a Republican-leaning precinct at Glenn High School outside of Kernersville) there were more voted ballots than people who showed up to vote, while in 903 (a Democratic-leaning precinct at Arts Council Theatre in Winston-Salem), there were hundreds of missing ballots.
After hearing Fansler’s concern, the board went into closed session to discuss the two precincts.
“We had to talk to counsel,” El-Amin said. “We directed Steve to do a hand count. We did a physical count of the ballots in those two precincts. We were able to confirm that they were correct. One was off by one vote and the other was also off by one vote, so they basically canceled each other out.”
Hines said Fansler’s assertion that there are discrepancies between the number of votes and ballots is simply not true. El-Amin, the Democratic member of the board, added in a text message: “To put it mildly, she is confused.”
The Chain of Custody Form for Precinct 11 reports 1,329 voted paper ballots, six spoiled ballots and 974 or 994 unused ballots — it’s difficult to say which because the chief judge who filled out the form apparently marked over the original numbers. Added together, the three numbers total either 2,329 or 2,309. In either case, it’s more than the 2,300 ballots issued before the polls opened on Election Day. A Post-It note by election worker Jacob Wright indicates his opinion that the number of unused ballots is 974, reducing the overage to nine. During the hand count, staff determined that there were actually 1,329 voted ballots, which reconciles with the number of Authorization To Vote forms signed.
In Precinct 903, the total number of voted paper ballots, unused ballots and spoiled ballots falls 533 short of the 2,100 issued to the precinct before the polls opened. Reviewing the Chain of Custody Form on Monday, Hines took a red pen and circled the original notation of “675” by the chief judge on the line for unused ballots, replacing it with “1,218.”
The paperwork could be read as a notation error by the chief judge for the count of unused ballots, or it could be an indication that 533 ballots went missing.
“Where are the missing unused ballots?” Fansler asked. “And how do we know that those are not actually voted ballots that should have been counted?”
Despite the fact that the local board certified the results on Nov. 14, Hines said on Monday that his staff was still auditing the results, specifically to get a count of the unused ballots. He said State Board of Elections Executive Director Kimberly Westbrook Strach was giving him until Tuesday afternoon to get the final numbers in.
Fansler questioned the board of elections’ sequence of tasks.
“Is that a normal occurrence,” she asked, “or is it something that doesn’t happen very often?”
Fansler has filed a request for a recount, as is her right considering Johnson’s narrow margin of victory in the race. Accompanied to the board of elections late Monday afternoon by Forsyth County Democratic Party Chair Susan Campbell and lawyer Eric Ellison, Fansler was told by Hines that the recount will be held on Thursday at 9:30 a.m.
The election numbers remain a moving target, based on an audit in spreadsheet format released to Triad City Beat by Hines on Monday that he marked “draft.”
In several precincts, the numbers don’t match up. Hines and El-Amin indicated that there are two numbers that are most important. The first is the Authorization To Vote forms. That’s the sheet that voters sign when the poll worker finds their name on the list, and carry with them until they hand it to another poll worker when they are directed to a voting machine. The second is ballots reported as voted.
In several precincts, the number of ATVs exceeded the number of votes by one, and in one case by as much as six. In several instances, the draft audit indicates that the numbers are off because the ATVs were numbered incorrectly. In other cases, judges reported that the M-100 counting machines at the polling places rejected voted ballots.
“It seems hard to believe, but in some cases we might have voters fleeing from the polling place,” Hines said. “They just get tired of waiting and they walk out with the ATV in hand.”
Hines said he is far more concerned when the number of voted ballots exceeds the number of voters who present themselves, as documented by the signed ATVs. In some cases, judges fed provisional ballots into the machines by mistake, while paper jams and misnumbered ATVs account for other overages.
In Precinct 207, located at New Hope United Methodist Church on Shattalon Drive in Winston-Salem, 41 more votes were counted than voters who showed up at the polling place. Those votes cannot be retrieved.
“This one I’m firing a chief judge over,” Hines said. “If you vote for more candidates than you’re allowed to, the machine will alert you and it will ask you if you want to correct it. They should have spoiled the first ballot and given them a new ballot, but instead they accepted the ballot for 41 over-votes and then gave them a new ballot. We won’t know which ones are which.”
Out of 101 precincts, the audit identified more than a third as having some kind of problem, whether it be mechanical failure, provisional ballots fed into the wrong machines or simple clerical errors. So far staff has discovered a total of 66 ballots that exceed ATVs.
When asked if any of the mistakes could have changed the outcome of a contest, Hines paused to think for a moment before noting that the chief judge who allowed 41 people to vote twice is the most egregious transgression and that the closest contest is the 318 votes that separate Fansler and Johnson.
Notwithstanding the train of errors, stumbles, misplaced ballots and paperwork revisions that marred Election Day, it’s entirely possible that Fansler lost the school board race on Aug. 12, 2013, when Gov. Pat McCrory signed the Voter Information Verification Act into law, shortening early voting from 17 to 10 days.
On Nov. 1, the final day of early voting across the state, people lined up in the rain for almost a block outside the Forsyth County Government Center, the sole early-voting site, to cast their ballots, waiting as long as three and a half hours.
“This was an arduous day for some very determined voters,” Mary Dickinson, a Democratic candidate for state House, wrote on her Facebook page. “There were lines at all the voting sites in Forsyth County. People thought they could vote at all of them. Many disappointed and angry folks. The wait in the end was more like three-and-a-half hours. We got coffee and donuts and cheered them on. This did not have to happen!”
Fansler said security personnel at the county building turned away disabled and elderly people who wanted to vote because there were no parking spaces available for curbside voting.
“There was one person who had a heart-valve replacement who I tried to help,” Fansler said. “The security guard said, ‘No you can’t come.’ The security guard closed the garage and wouldn’t let people in for curbside voting.”
El-Amin confirmed that security personnel turned voters away from curbside voting because they needed to keep traffic circulating for public-safety reasons. His own elderly parents were among those affected.
“On the first day of early voting they had not anticipated that amount of voting,” El-Amin said. “I brought my parents for curbside early voting. We went inside the parking deck. It was chaos, to put it mildly. There were only two parking spots for curbside voting. I insisted that they make two more spaces on the street available for curbside voting.”
Early voting decisively favored Democratic candidates, with Motsinger leading with 17,719, or 20.8 percent; Fansler in second, with 14,057 votes, or 19.2 percent; and Garcia in third, with 14,057 votes, or 16.5 percent. The three Republican candidates trailed with about 12,000 votes or 14 percent apiece.
Hines said the board of elections responded to the unanticipated turnout on the final day of early voting by deploying 29 iVo machines — a record for the state.
“We didn’t expect the number of people to come out in this midterm election,” Hines said. “It was very surprising.”
Hines was responsible for running the election, but not for setting early-voting hours and locations. The board did that before he was hired.
El-Amin said “suppression” is too strong a word for what happened during early voting.
“I think it’s just poor planning and lack of foresight,” he said.
In the future, El-Amin said, he would like his Republican colleagues on the board to consider opening additional sites for early voting.
“There were people standing in line for three hours,” he said. “I don’t think anybody should have to spend 45 minutes or an hour in line.”
Video shot by Elisabeth Motsinger during the final day of early voting
“The public must be able to trust election officials in providing accurate election results,” State Board of Elections Executive Director Kimberly Westbrook Strach wrote in her letter of termination to Rob Coffman, Steve Hines’ predecessor at the Forsyth County Board of Elections. “Accurate election outcomes are the most important duty of a director of elections.”
In addition to requesting a recount, Kathie Fansler filed a protest of the Nov. 4, 2014 general election, citing “significant irregularities.”
The Forsyth County Democratic Party issued a press release on Monday night supporting Fansler.
“We want to restore citizens’ confidence in the election process by making sure that all votes are included in the election and accurately counted,” party Chair Susan Campbell said in a prepared statement.
Scott Cumbie, chairman of the Forsyth County Republican Party, takes a different view.
“I certainly wouldn’t say there were any irregularities,” he said. “There were certainly delays on election night because of equipment problems (from what I understand)…. The bottom line was that everything was accounted for and everything balanced. Except for the delays, everything worked as it should.”
In at least one regard Hines’ handling of the 2014 election sets him apart from Coffman. While Strach found that Coffman was untruthful when he was confronted about the mishandling of the Tobaccoville Village Council election, no one has suggested that Hines has been anything but forthright about the multiple glitches in the vote count in this year’s election.
“Director Coffman’s conduct regarding the Tobaccoville recount, his apparent disregard for ensuring an accurate result, and his failure to provide complete and truthful responses in his reply to the petition are unacceptable for a person in this position of public trust,” Strach wrote at the time. “Based on these actions, I am not confident that Director Coffman can fulfill his obligation to the voters of Forsyth County to provide fair and accurate elections.”
Hines said the experience of Election 2014 has imparted some lessons to him.
“Errors of some of the magnitude that we’re seeing with that chief judge that let people vote twice, we need to address that in training,” he said.
Hines said his staff plans to meet with the vendor of the M-100 vote-count machines to try to resolve the problem, noting that the 17-inch ballot this year increased the occurrence of paper jams.
“A lot of that equipment there has to be replaced,” El-Amin said. “It’s a technical efficiency issue. When you have that kind of historic turnout you have to have good equipment. That is a serious issue.”
Meanwhile, Fansler isn’t satisfied that the votes were counted correctly. “If you’re gonna audit the numbers you need to audit all the numbers,” she said. “You don’t pick one set of numbers that suits you. That’s why we’re doing the recount.”
Listen to Jordan Green talk about this story on 88.5 FM WFDD.