When I met Rob Coffman last month, he shook my hand and introduced himself as “the evil and incompetent Rob Coffman.” I don’t think he meant the introduction to be funny and I didn’t laugh. There is little doubt that there are many people who might agree with the Forsyth County Board of Elections (BOE) Director’s portrayal of himself.
I was at the Forsyth County BOE as a result of a public records request I made to Coffman in September. I thought the initial request was simple enough. I made it as a result of research for an article I was writing regarding the discovery of hundreds of voter verification cards having been ignored for years in the Winston-Salem State University post office.
Imagine my dismay when that request itself revealed that Coffman continues to display a cavalier attitude toward the law and the handling of vital election documents.
In my request, sent to Coffman on Sept. 11, I asked for copies of those cards. I tried to be specific and referenced an article (with a link) in the Winston-Salem Journal that reported on the discovery, and I referred to the undeliverable mailings that were held at the Winston-Salem State University post office and not returned to the Forsyth BOE. I even estimated the number of cards at 580, because according to the September Forsyth BOE meeting minutes Ken Raymond, the Chairman of the Board, had reported collecting a total of 584 neglected cards from the WSSU post office in the course of a few days.
You can imagine my surprise when on Sept. 23 I received emails from an assistant county attorney for Forsyth County containing four separate files that were made up of 785 copies of returned cards. That was just about 200 more cards than I expected. After inspection, I determined that of the 785 copies, 240 of them were mailed on or after Sept. 3, 2013. That would mean that about 40 of the cards that I should have received were omitted all together.
I subsequently sent an email to Albright to inform him of the discrepancy. He emailed me a letter, explaining the sticking point was the word “all” and it was a reasonable that Mr. Coffman would look beyond the subject at hand and send me cards that were mailed after the Sept. 3 board meeting where the malfeasance was made public.
It took several more emails, including one to the three-member board, before I received this email from Coffman on Oct. 3. In the email Coffman advised me that there was not a total of 584 cards as was recorded in the official minutes of the Sept. 3 board meeting, but only 557 cards. (Click here to see a copy of an email string that includes the first request for public records through the email where I asked the board to be alerted to my public records request.)
It was as if Coffman was playing games and trying to obscure the real problems – or was indeed incompetent in handling these important election documents. In an earlier email exchange between him and Ken Raymond, I discovered that Coffman had sent the board “the copies of the cards” and also only sent 471 — as if board members would not look at the file or count the cards. Raymond indicated that of those, 121 copies were not part of the original cards that he found at the WSSU post office.
In the end, I copied not 557 cards, but 556 cards. (No one will ever know if these were the cards Raymond recovered from the university post office). Most of them were not list-maintenance mailings as Coffman indicated to the media in September, but the majority of cards were verification cards sent to new voters or voters who had moved or made other changes in their records to verify their address as North Carolina statute requires. The verification process is the only part of the process that can currently catch fraudulent registration or administrative mistakes. Ignore it at the peril of the system.
The majority of the cards were mailed to voters who voted in the 2008 election and most of those voters registered either during same day registration or in the days leading up to the 25-day deadline. But there were approximately 20 cards for voters who voted in 2012 too. Perhaps, if Coffman had followed the law and proper procedure, some of these voters would have been found to be ineligible to vote in the jurisdiction because of an invalid address.
There were also several cards in these files that were mailed to voters who lived on the Wake Forest University campus, but had been delivered to the WSSU post office in error. These cards never made it to the intended voter because Coffman ignored the law.
This encounter with the Director of the Forsyth County BOE has been disconcerting to say the least. Coffman made it look like he was trying to hide something by sending me cards that I did not ask for and not sending some cards for which I did ask. At the best this shows sloppiness and indifference to the proper handling of voting records. That alone is intolerable in a process where one vote can change an election. Worse, it may show indifference to the law. Worst of all, it suggests a deliberate willingness to ignore or bend the law.
His unreserved contempt for protocol and the law should disturb the people of Forsyth County. It is also troubling to know that Coffman singled out WSSU as the only University where he had an agreement that effectively exempted campus voters from the verification process.
Coffman continues to be supported by the Forsyth County government and the State Board of Elections. Here is an audio of Don Wright’s interview with a former employee who complained that Coffman had made inappropriate remarks to her. Wright refused to call for an official investigation into Coffman’s behavior and failure to follow federal and state law in 2010. Wright said that because Coffman could “get an election out” they couldn’t do anything at the time of the interview, but it was not unprecedented to hold on to a Director until after an election. Whatever “get an election out” means, the people of Forsyth County should not want such maneuvers in their home county. And three years have passed, but Coffman remains in office.
Forsyth voters should be worried that Coffman is still at the helm of their elections. The SBOE should initiate a new investigation immediately, but this time send a real investigator, not the board’s attorney, who had a penchant for gossip and only embarrassed himself with the outcome of his look into Coffman’s circus at the Forsyth County BOE.