The Surry County Board of Elections has recommended the Dobson Board of Commissioners race be rerun, as a result of irregularities involving a poll worker during the Nov. 8 general election.
The board made the recommendation to the State Board of Elections during a hearings the local board held Tuesday in Dobson.
A challenge was filed by John Jonczak, candidate for Dobson town commissioner and local business owner, over the conduct of a poll worker who may have unduly influenced voters. A second challenge was filed by James E. Yokeley over the same poll worker behavior.
After consideration, the county board recommended to the state that a new election be held for the Dobson commissioners race. Both challenges were passed by the board of elections in a 3-2 vote with board members Clark Comer and Drew Poindexter voting in opposition of advancing both challenges.
Sharon Gates-Hodges passed away just days before the general election in which she and Jonczak were seeking one of two Dobson commissioner’s seats. County elections director Michella Huff was asked at the time what the implications were with the general election in sight and said Gates-Hodges name would still appear as voting had begun.
On election day, J. Wayne Atkins and Walter White both won their bid for reelection in the four-way race for two seats, but there is question as to the integrity of the process. At Tuesday’s hearings the board heard testimony in which it was claimed a poll worker in Dobson told voters on election day that candidate Gates-Hodges had passed away.
That action may be perceived as a tacit endorsement of any other candidate than the deceased, which the nonpartisan board of elections and its representatives are not allowed to do.
The incumbents won the two seats that were on the ballot with Atkins receiving 184 votes, White totaling 167, and Jonczak won the vote of 159 residents.
The difference between second and third place vote totals was only eight votes, 1.29% of the total, with Gates-Hodges still getting 106 votes. One of those was Nancy Hill who gladly voted for her good friend who had passed.
Hill was a canary in the coal mine and gave her firsthand account of election day conduct. She sent Jonczak a blind email as the two did not know one another but Hill knew the Jonczak children from camps and church groups. “You don’t know me… but I had hoped you would be one of our commissioners.”
In a sworn statement, Hill said the poll worker pointed out to her that Sharon Gates-Hodges had passed away. “I was a good friend of hers and voted for her anyway. I wondered if it was ethical for the election folks to tell voters that a candidate had passed away…. Something didn’t sit right,” she wrote to Jonczak.
James E. Yokeley offered in a sworn statement testimony that on election day a poll worker told the couple in front of him that one of the candidates had passed away, “This person has passed, I’ve been told,” they were reported to have said. When he got to the front of the line the same poll worker pointed at the name of Jonczak and identified him as deceased.
“I was initially confused, as I had just met him in the parking lot,” he said. “It was my conclusion that if I was confused, it was very likely that more, it not all, voters helped by the same poll worker were confused as well resulting in a negative impact to Jonczak placing him at an unfair disadvantage.”
There has been no discussion, it should be noted, of any intentional malfeasance by the poll worker.
Commissioner Tim DeHaan said the poll worker simply was in error. Jonczak at the time of the incident felt similarly. “I don’t think they maliciously did it, but hopefully they can be better in the future.”
As the challenge neared its final vote, Comer voiced displeasure with the process and that the motion to sustain Jonczak’s petition had advanced without discussion before he could offer his motion to dismiss it. He felt there was a lack of evidence presented and some information conflicted itself. “That’s very different. That’s very conflicted with what we heard in the earlier hearing.”
He took issue with the nature in which the poll worker informed voters of the deceased candidate – in one instance the worker said Gates-Hodges had passed, in another it was claimed the worker pointed at the commissioner section of the ballot and told a voter to choose two, and that Gates-Hodges had passed. Yokeley said he was told by the same worker that Jonczak has passed.
With only four candidates, three living, an election that yielded 619 votes has gotten sticky.
“Certainly, that changes the dynamic of where the votes go, if they are narrowed down to three candidates,” Comer said acknowledging that the poll worker had been in error. “There was still misconduct by a poll worker… even though it was in a different form.”
Path to recourse
There were only four potential outcomes to Tuesday’s hearing. One was to correct the vote count; in this instance the count itself was not the issue. Secondly a recount could be conducted but with the same number of ballots cast and only an eight-vote margin, the likelihood of that changing the outcome was small.
The county board could opt to send the issue to Raleigh for further consideration, or lastly use “any other actions deemed necessary” to resolve the issue. Holding a new election would be considered as part of “any other action.”
There was vigorous questioning of the process from Commissioner Tim DeHaan who realized that taking the challenge down two paths was unnecessary. He said the poll worker was in error to have given any indication on how a voter should vote.
“If we send it up to the state and he’s asking for two different sets of relief,” those being first to correct the vote count or to hold a new election, “but did not put forth any argument, or justification, for the first set of relief do we need to separate down here before it goes to the state or do we send the whole thing to the state and let them separate it?” DeHaan asked.
He continued by pointing out Jonczak presented no evidence for a claim that the vote total itself was wrong. “He did not provide any proof or accusations of wrongdoing in voting…we eliminate that part of the discussion.”
Jonczak after the hearing was as upbeat as one may expect and said the outcome “was not unexpected.” He was clear that he felt Huff and the Surry County Board of Elections had handled the issue well and with great transparency, “We were in contact through the whole thing.”
He expressed concern Wednesday that two of the board of elections members found there was not sufficient evidence to advance either challenge even though Huff in her incident report from election day said the poll worker admitted to notifying voters of a deceased candidate.
“I spoke to the poll worker and asked them,” about the claim Jonczak made. “They stated they had been telling voters the candidate is deceased because,” as the poll worker told Huff, “I thought I should be letting people know.”
Huff told the board that standard training for poll workers covers this, and that, “No matter the question, you know nothing about a candidate when you work the polls.”
She said the process worked as it should with a hearing allowed for protestors to state their findings of fact and the board then conducted a hearing in which they acted “much like a judge in a trial.”
“I feel that the hearings accomplished the purpose for which they were designed which were to provide due process to any challenger of a ballot; to make a decision based upon material and substantial evidence; and to create a record upon which a decision can be reviewed. Yesterday, all parties had the opportunity to fairly and fully present their case to the Board of Elections,” she said.
Both the Jonczak and the Yokeley challenge were sustained and now move to the state board of elections for further consideration.