The recent discovery of important voter mailings stacked up in a post office underlines long-standing failures by elections staff that the Forsyth County Board of Elections (BOE) must finally resolve.
On Aug. 30, Ken Raymond, the new Forsyth County BOE Chairman, according to this Winston-Salem Journal article discovered hundreds of verification / list-maintenance mailings that had been held for months (and some for years) at the Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) post office.
The letters (which include voter cards) are mailed to voters by the county Boards of Election (BOEs) for a variety of reasons including: address verification for new registrants, any change in voter information or voters who have been in inactive status through two federal elections. Verification mailings and subsequent return of undeliverable mail are important because this is the mechanism the county BOEs use to verify residency and ultimately remove unqualified voters.
The Winston-Salem Journal reported that Raymond said he was concerned “that the campus post office was not properly handling list-maintenance cards from the elections office.”
Raymond is right to be concerned and for more than one reason. First, to make this clear, the WSSU post office is not just a mail room on a college campus, it is a bona fide United States Post Office. It is governed by all the federal laws and rules and regulations that any post office must follow, but it is a contract station and its employees are not US Postal Service (USPS) employees, they are state employees. This helps to explain why WSSU (and not the USPS) appeared to take control of the situation, why Nancy Young, WSSU’s director of media and public relations, said “the issues were resolved after they were discovered,” and also why a WSSU committee would take a closer look at the problems with the election mail.
Young told Civitas that WSSU post office employees will now follow procedure and return all undeliverable mail to the Forsyth BOE and will no longer wait for the Board to retrieve them. According to Rob Coffman, the Forsyth elections director, this was the “informal understanding” between WSSU and the Forsyth BOE. Coffman said that “either the undeliverable cards would be sent back or the campus post office would contact the elections office to pick them up.” Coffman went on to say that the board had not received a call this year, but Ms. Young told Civitas that the Winston-Salem Journal article did not have the full story and that WSSU postal employees had called the Forsyth BOE numerous times to let them know that the undeliverable mail was stacking up — but no one from the BOE ever came to retrieve it.
Coffman made several statements in the article that collectively do not add up. He was quick to say that that the problems had been resolved and would now be handled correctly, but he also said that he had no problem picking the cards up at the campus post office because the election board would supposedly get them quicker that way. Seeing that they hadn’t been picked up in four years, with more than 150 returns dating back to 2009, it sounds like Coffman doesn’t take this part of his job very seriously.
Moreover, this isn’t the first occurrence of this problem. The exact same problem occurred in 2009 after the 2008 election, which makes the entire situation even more troubling, especially because Coffman said that the problem had been resolved in 2011.
In 2011, Rebecca S. Pope, a Forsyth County Board of Elections staff member at the time, told YES! Weekly that “a large number” of voter cards from WSSU students who had voted in 2008 election had been returned in 2009, months after they should have been returned. According to the YES! Weekly article, Ms. Pope said in an affidavit;
In 2009 we processed a large number of returned voter cards from Winston-Salem State University. “These cards should have been returned months earlier. Since they were [returned] after the election results were official, the impact of illegal votes were disregarded. Because of the untimeliness [of] the return of the voter cards the voters are verified and in the system as legal voters instead of them being removed.
In 2011, Coffman said that” those cards were returned as a result of a state mandated, list-maintenance program which requires local boards of elections to send out confirmation cards by April 15 of every odd-numbered year.” But that claim was disputed by a former staff member who said that the cards would have had to have been sent out in response to new registrations during the 2009 election. Coffman is claiming that the most recent discovery of cards resulted from the state mandated, list-maintenance program too, but it is clear that WSSU kept to its agreement with Coffman and held on to all returned mail — not just the list-maintenance letters.
Coffman has a lot of explaining to do. Right now the buck stops with him He is after all, the Director of the County BOE, he is responsible for knowing and following all state and federal election laws and all the policies and procedures that govern the administration of elections. He should follow the law and policy and procedure yet it appears in this case he deliberately disregarded the law.
Curiously, Coffman also indicated that WSSU was the only college that the Forsyth County BOE had this agreement with because that the other colleges had much lower “volume.” Why would Coffman single out WSSU, especially since Wake Forest University has comparable enrollment numbers?
The games Coffman is playing with voter verification and list-maintenance are doing a disservice not only to the student voters at WSSU but all the voters in the county. Coffman has played fast and loose with the rules as the Director of Elections in Forsyth County, and it’s time for the Forsyth BOE to rein him in.