By Jonathan Austin
Yancey County News
June 23, 2011 edition
An informal survey of some residents whose 2010 absentee ballots were witnessed by Judy Ledford suggests that the former Yancey County Sheriff’s Department captain may have delivered ballots to residents and then taken them to be mailed for the general election. If that is the case, Ledford violated state law, officials said.
The Yancey County News has copies of all absentee ballot applications for the 2010 Yancey County general election, as well as the witness signature form for the ballots and the envelopes in which the ballot applications were mailed. Ledford’s signature appears in the witness block on 32 of the absentee ballots.
While it is legal for most any adult to witness an absentee ballot, it is illegal for anyone other than the voter, a close relative of the voter, or a “verifiable legal guardian” to obtain a ballot, mail the ballot or deliver it to the polling place.
This week the Yancey County News began calling voters whose absentee ballots were witnessed by Ledford. Some of the applications included no telephone number, and some had a number but no one answered.
Five residents told the newspaper that Ledford had acted as witness for their ballot and taken the ballot with her when she left. Three of them said Ledford provided the ballots, while another said “it was brought to me” but declined to say Ledford provided it.
One of the voters who initially said Ledford had taken the completed ballot with her called the newspaper back in 15 minutes to say he was wrong and that he himself had actually mailed his ballot. “You kind of caught me off guard there,” he said in explaining why he felt the need to revise his answer to the question of whether Ledford had carried his completed ballot away.
In all, voters contacted gave these responses:
“She just brought us the absentee ballots to vote,” one voter said, and “she took them back with her.” The voter said Ledford carried two ballots away; one for herself and one for her husband.
Asked if Ledford provided the absentee ballot, another voter replied, “Yes.” Asked if the officer had mailed the completed ballot for her, the voter responded: “As far as I know she did.”
Another absentee voter said her ballot was “brought to me.” Asked if Ledford had taken it after witnessing the vote, she replied: “Yeah, I think so.”
Finally, a voter said he received his absentee ballot by mail but that Ledford “said she’d take it in for me.” He was the one who called back within minutes to say she hadn’t actually taken it but that he himself had mailed it.
One voter contacted by the Yancey County News declined to answer the questions, saying she didn’t like the way the newspaper was attacking the Republican Party, while another said he thought his wife had returned the ballots.
If the voters’ accounts are accurate, they describe how a high-ranking county employee invested considerable time and effort to secure verifiable votes in an election in which her boss – a sheriff who had inherited the job on the retirement of his father, the former sheriff – was facing a strong challenger.
The list of ballots Ledford witnessed does not include several she assisted with for close family members.
Sheriff Gary Banks won the election by 300-some votes – including a record number of mailed in absentee ballots.
Attempts to contact Ledford for comment were not successful. The newspaper was told she may be on vacation.
Sheriff Banks said Thursday morning that he believes the voters the newspaper contacted “are mistaken” in their memory.
“They’re memory is incorrect. I don’t think Judy Ledford would do that. I think that’s long enough ago that they my be mistaken.” Banks verified that Ledford had retired this year with the rank of captain, but said she is now working as a part-time reserve deputy on an as-needed basis.
Charles McCurry, the chairman of the Yancey County Board of Elections, said he knows of no legal way an individual can access blank absentee ballots to be delivered to voters.
Other than as a voter, family member of a voter, or a voter’s guardian, “anytime you take possession of a voted or unvoted ballot ... it’s a felony.”
McCurry said the law is very specific about control of ballots. “Once a (unrelated) witness see and voter seal the envelope and signs as witness, their legal responsibility is over. They can do no more.”
Read the full list of election stories