By Jonathan Austin
Yancey County News
Published Oct. 20, 2011
Election records show that a man working as a dispatcher with the Yancey County Sheriff’s Department leading up to the 2010 general election acted as the official witness on an absentee ballot for a man who had been convicted of 27 felonies in only six years.
The dispatcher, Austin Wilson, is the witness whose signature apprears on the absentee ballot for Orin John Wilson II, a Burnsville resident who has been previously convicted of 12 felony counts of forgery, 12 felony counts of uttering a forged instrument, felony possession with intent to distribute Schedule II drugs, felony possession of marijuana and felony manufacturing marijuana.
The absentee ballot did not identify if the two men are related, and close relatives are supposed to note relationships on the ballot.
Orin Wilson had spent most of 2010 behind bars after he violated probation from a driving with license revoked conviction by being arrested again on another charge of DWLR. Convicted January 28, 2010, he was released Aug. 5.
But a closer look at the Department of Corrections records suggest Orin Wilson shouldn’t have even been out of jail when he registered to vote in July 2007.
The DOC records show he was convicted in November 2006 of felony possession of schedule II drugs and sentenced to no less than 10 months and no more than 12 months behind bars. He was released after less than seven months in prison on June 9, 2007, and registered to vote on July 16.
If he had served the minimum sentence, he would have still been in prison until September of that year.
The fact that the sheriff’s dispatcher witnessed the perennial felon’s ballot follows a pattern of law officers signing as the witness on votes for residents whose prior relationship with law officers appear to have mostly been as the suspect being arrested on a variety of felony or misdemeanor charges including drug felonies, multiple drunk driving arrests, resisting arrest, and larceny.
The law officers were acting as witnesses in the general election in which their boss, the interim sheriff appointed to fill out his retiring father’s term in office, faced a tough opponent who actually ended up winning most of the votes cast on election day. The sheriff won by 325 votes on the strength of the absentee ballots.
As previously reported, voters have told this newspaper that a ranking officer in the sheriff’s department supplied them with their absentee ballots, witnessed their vote and then took the completed ballots with her when she left. If that was the case, she violated election laws.
Any adult can witness a mail-in absentee ballot, but records show that some individuals working for the sheriff acted as witnesses on more than 100 ballots.
Those actions likely are part of the criminal investigation into absentee balloting that was initiated by state authorities even before the polls closed on election day.
Aside from those votes, this newspaper has proven that felons who had not regained their right to vote were allowed to do so in the 2010 general election.
The Yancey County News studied court dockets from the period immediately prior to the general election and found evidence that at least four felons who were prohibited by law from voting actually did vote, and their votes were counted.
State law says that someone convicted of a felony automatically regains voting rights when they complete all of the court requirements of their sentence, including their probation or parole. Records show that these four people were still on probation. One of later those told a newspaper employee that he voted illegally because then-chief deputy Tom Farmer had offered to reduce an outstanding ticket in return for the vote.
All of these actions are likely part of the criminal investigation that began, officials say, after after numerous Yancey County residents called the state board of elections to complain that they saw abuses and questionable activity leading up to the general election.
If any of the ballots in question were straight ticket votes, then the investigation could rise to the federal level because two federal offices - that of U.S. Senator and U.S. Representative - were on the ballot in the 2010 general election.
See all the election investigation stories