By Jonathan D. Austin
Yancey County News
June 9, 2011 edition
The attorney for the State Board of Elections said last week that the state board will decide whether a petition against county Elections Director Loretta Robinson has merit, if she chooses to seek a hearing on the allegations that she should be fired.
“The state board can vote to initiate procedures for termination,” said Don Wright, legal counsel for the state board. “The director has the right to appear, to present witnesses, to provide information,” but if she seeks a hearing, the decision will rest with the five-member state board.
Charles McCurry, the chairman of the Yancey County Board of Elections, told the Yancey County News last week that the county board voted 2-1 last to petition the state to remove an employee on allegations that she violated the law and conducted herself in an improper manner.
“It has everything to do with violations of law and conduct,” McCurry said at the time.
McCurry later said all three members of the county board had acknowledged witnessing possible violations in the election that fall under the responsibility of Robinson.
McCurry said one allegation does date back to the 2008 election when he says he witnessed an individual pull a large pile of absentee ballots from under his shirt in the elections office and hand them to the staff.
Asked why he didn’t take action at the time, he said “I’d been sworn in to my position just a couple of hours before, and I didn’t know it was wrong.” But he said the incident came to mind last month as the board met to debate other allegations of wrongdoing in the elections office.
Asked to detail allegations against Robinson, McCurry said he couldn’t discuss the more than a dozen complaints, but said one particular complaint involved the counting of absentee ballots after the board had been unable to verify that the voter was a resident.
“State law says we send them a letter to verify their place of residence. If it is returned (by the Post Office) we are to send another. If it comes back, we are to not count that absentee ballot.”
But he said some voters were sent verifications “five times” with no response, and their votes were allowed to be counted.
He suggested that the problem is that not only was the suspect ballot counted, which is improper, but that each suspect ballot – when allowed to be counted in an election – cancels out a legitimate ballot by a legal voter.
“This is not political, and it is not about any particular candidate. This is about the entire ballot."
In the 2010 general election, voters had their say on races in the county, in statewide races, and in federal elections. One race in particular – the Superior Court race that was won by Gary Gavenus – was close, and initially Spruce Pine attorney Hal Harrison was thought to have won. But election officials in Madison County reported late that they had failed to count some votes, and when certified by the state, those were enough to give Gavenus the seat on the court.
Wright, from Raleigh, said the board isn’t acting to overturn any election result; he said the races have been decided and it is too late for anyone to challenge the outcome. He said the board, if required, can “conduct hearings, they conduct them with due process, witnesses, cross examinations, subpoenas,” and then “they render decisions in open meeting.”
Asked if they assign guilt, he replied: “No; nobody’s being tried.” He said they “find a basis for determination” to rule on the county board’s petition. “As to the credibility of the facts, that is an issue for the state board of elections,” he said.
The state board can hold the hearing in Yancey County, he said. “In 2004 there was a proceeding initiated against a county director, and that hearing was set in that county seat,” Wright said.
Wright said the petition from the county goes to the state elections board executive director, who then contacts the local board director. If she seeks a hearing, it will be announced within a set number of days. The hearing is set based on the schedules of the state board members and the local director. “We try to do it at everyone’s convenience.”
Robinson, a longtime employee of the elections office, has publicly denied any wrongdoing.
Read the full list of election stories