It is expected to take a little more than two years to implement the new voter photo ID law, but it will take a lot longer to change the dysfunctional culture that is entrenched in the state and local boards of elections and their staffs.
Not only has the legislature passed much-needed election reform legislation, but all the boards of elections (for the state and all 100 counties) have undergone changes in membership. In North Carolina, election board majorities depend on the Governor’s party. For the first time in 20 years Republicans have gained the majority on both the State Board of Elections (SBOE) and the county boards. Now there are two Republicans and one Democrat on every county board and three Republicans and two Democrats on the SBOE.
Unfortunately, there are indications around the state that Democrats are not ready to let go of their power and the old way of doing things. Two recent county board of elections meetings looked more like “Moral” Monday protests than a county board meeting.
The Watauga County Board of Elections meeting took place on August 12, with a newly appointed Republican member. The lone Democratic member, Kathleen Campbell, cursed throughout the meeting and condescendingly called the Republican board members, Bill Aceto and Luke Eggers, “boys”. And just like Mondays at the legislature, the attendees at this meeting screamed and booed and chanted throughout the meeting.
Then there’s Forsyth County. In the most recent Forsyth County Board of Elections meeting, one notable protester attendee happened to be the immediate past-chairman of the board, Linda Sutton. Sutton called voter ID “draconian Jim Crow legislation.” She admonished the board, telling them: “Your responsibility as board members is to the voters of Forsyth County – not ALEC, not Art Pope, and not the Koch Brothers.”
It is interesting that the attendees of both meetings appear to want to go back to the way North Carolina ran election boards before a Republican Governor was elected and the Republicans gained super-majorities in both houses of the state legislature. This isn’t consistent with the left’s recent rallying cry of “Forward, Not One Step Back.”
Before nostalgia sets in, it would be a good idea to remember just what the “good old days” were really like when the last administration was in charge.
The Forsyth County BOE is a good place to begin this walk down memory lane. Linda Sutton, while Chairman of the Forsyth County Board of Elections, was also employed by Democracy NC (a founding member of Blueprint NC — the group that promised to demonize and destroy the Republican Governor and legislative majority). Sutton was chairman of the board of elections when allegations were leveled against the Forsyth BOE’s director, Rob Coffman. In 2011, three former employees — Terry Cox, Deena Head and Pamela Johnson — filed a lawsuit alleging that Coffman had sexually harassed employees and allowed election law violations. The lawsuit was dismissed in October 2012 by a Forsyth County Superior Court Judge who cited the doctrine of governmental immunity. And in May of this year, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that Board of Elections employees are not state employees and are not eligible to make a claim under the state’s Whistleblower Act.
From a Winston-Salem Journal article:
They accused Coffman of calling one employee a “crack ho,” and of saying that another employee “runs her mouth too much and she’s too fat.” The lawsuit accused Coffman of calling an employee, a derogatory term for a lesbian, in front of co-workers. It also said Coffman asked aloud if a teenage girl had won a costume contest by dressing “like a prostitute.”
Coffman has acknowledged making a comment that was “completely in the wrong” in a 2008 incident involving Head. He has denied making any inappropriate comments since then, and said that he has undergone sensitivity counseling.
The lawsuit named Head, an African-American, as the temporary employee who Coffman introduced as a “crack ho” to a stranger. In the lawsuit, it was evident that Coffman was an “equal opportunity” harasser. He made distasteful and objectionable remarks to and about age, sex, sexual orientation, physical disabilities and race.
The claimants no longer work for the Forsyth County BOE. Johnson was fired, Cox took early retirement, and Head was not rehired in her temporary position.
While this story sounds sordid, there is an even uglier side to it. That part involves the SBOE’s attorney, Don Wright, who acknowledged the director’s appalling and unlawful behavior yet characterized Coffman merely as “being a jerk.” Wright even personally interviewed many of the involved parties in 2011 but wound up doing nothing. His interview with Rebecca VanderKlok, a former processing clerk in Forsyth County, who described a hostile work environment and said that Coffman had offended her by addressing her using a vulgar term for a middle-aged woman, is significant because it was recorded by VanderKlok (with Wright’s knowledge) and has been widely quoted. Click here to listen to the interview.
The February 2, 2011 article contains a “cast of characters” and much more information on the goings on in Forsyth County including accusations of violations of election law and that Coffman had networked the server that was never supposed to be connected to the Internet to protect it from hackers. This computer is used to program election equipment and tabulate results and Coffman accessed it from remote sites from 2006 through 2009 – meaning that other outsiders could have accessed it too, and in theory manipulated the data.
Former SBOE Director Gary Bartlett acknowledged the breach in security and said that “staff instructed him to discontinue the practice, and it has not been a recurring problem. Although the state board frowned upon the practice, it was not illegal.” But of course something need not be illegal to severely damage the integrity of voting.
In the interview with VanderKlok, Wright tried to minimize Coffman’s misbehavior. Click Here to hear the recording, Wright’s comments quoted below begin at the 29:25 mark:
“I give Rob credit, Rob admits he’s a jerk, too, if you confront him,” Wright told VanderKlok. “I said, ‘Rob, you’ve said so many stupid things at the most stupid times.’ I’ve told him that. He’s said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Can’t you control your mouth?’ He said, ‘I have trouble.’ I said, ‘You’ve only got yourself to blame.”
That the state and county BOEs would condone this behavior by ignoring it is astonishing. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to return to this kind of administration of elections.
Sadly, however, not much has changed in Forsyth County or in Raleigh. Locally, Coffman continues as Director. (He just fired the woman that, according to VanderKlok, he called “blob”.) Any private company would have fired him long ago. In Raleigh, Wright continues as the State Board’s General Counsel. His title sounds professional and reputable. The audio and his record in this situation torpedo that notion.
In the interview Wright sums the situation up when he acknowledges Coffman’s behavior by saying, “He ain’t gonna change.” That’s an incredible statement from a person who should be the leading guardian of professionalism and competence in the elections system, and it’s yet more proof that further changes are needed in the North Carolina elections system.