Durham’s Board of Elections this week will review a challenge filed by county sheriff Clarence Birkhead against “certified, unaffiliated” candidate Maria Jocys’s right to be placed on the midterm election ballot in her bid to unseat the incumbent, who is seeking a second term.
But in an emailed statement to the INDY, Jocys this week said “the staff of the Durham County Board of Elections did its job.”
“They thoroughly reviewed the petition signatures, and they determined that 9,599 signatures were valid. Disqualifying our campaign at this point would, in effect, disenfranchise thousands of voters who want a choice in November,” Jocys says.
Jocys, pronounced “JO-cees,” is a Durham native who retired from the FBI in December. One month after retiring, she contacted local media and political action committees, talked with friends, reached out to community members, and set up a website in a quest to persuade 4 percent of Durham’s registered voters to sign a petition that would allow her to run as an unaffiliated sheriff’s candidate in November.
As the INDY previously reported, Jocys may pose a formidable challenge for the incumbent, who is Durham County’s first Black sheriff.
Jocys graduated from Southern High School and worked in East Durham’s Wellons Village as a teen. After graduating from East Carolina University, she began a 32-year law enforcement career that started with the Greenville Police Department followed by 24 years with the FBI.
While working for the FBI, Jocys led counterterrorism investigations around the globe and was the first woman to lead the FBI’s Raleigh office.
Before retiring, Jocys worked for five years with the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force, which focuses on criminal street gangs in Durham.
Birkhead’s challenge comes on the heels of a NC Board of Elections announcement last month that Jocys’s campaign is under investigation to determine why the names of thousands of registered voters that appeared on her petition to get on the ballot are invalid.
In a request to keep Jocys’s name off of the fall’s midterm ballot, the incumbent also questioned the challenger’s political affiliation.
Birkhead said Jocys first registered as a Democrat with the state board of elections in 1998, before changing her party affiliation to unaffiliated in November 2021 and then back to Democrat just one month later. The state’s general statute “prohibits party changes within 90 days of the filing period,” the sheriff said. Jocys began her campaign in January after retiring from the FBI in December.
“As a Democrat, Maria Jocys should have filed for the Democratic primary,” Birkhead says.
Jocys, however, says the 90-day deadline the sheriff cites for switching party affiliation has nothing to do with unaffiliated candidates.
“It applies only to candidates who want to run in a party primary.”
Patrick Gannon, a spokesman with the NC Board of Elections, told the INDY in late May that Jocys is set to appear on the November ballot as an unaffiliated candidate for Durham County sheriff after she submitted a petition with 15,685 signatures to the Durham County Board of Elections on May 17. Gannon noted that state law required Jocys to collect 9,248 signatures—4 percent of Durham County’s registered voters—to appear on the ballot.
But state elections officials say more than a third of the 15,685 signatures are suspect.
Birkhead, in a seven-page challenge filed with the Durham Board of Elections, stated that 41 people who signed the petition are dead.
He further cited the state election officials’ investigation before asserting that Jocys’s petition “has fraudulent and forged signatures, duplicate signatures and other irregularities” and that “with the elimination of duplicate signatures,” Jocys’s campaign “has not met the four percent threshold to be named on the ballot.”
Birkhead asserts that Jocys’s campaign submitted 9,599 signatures that “were deemed valid.”
“This exceeded the 9,248 threshold by 351 ballots,” he stated. “With the elimination of 566 duplicate signatures, the Maria Jocys campaign fails to qualify as an unaffiliated candidate.”
Birkhead stated in a memorandum in support of his candidate challenge that his campaign’s request for copies of Jocys’s petition was denied by the county board of elections, which instead provided him with a “petition status report.”
Birkhead’s campaign now asserts that two of the 41 voters he claims are dead passed away in 2016. Three more died in 2017. One died in 2018. Two more died in 2019. Five died in 2019. Sixteen expired last year, and four died this year.
“Even though the irregularity was ‘caught’ by the [Durham] Board of Elections, the submission of the names of deceased individuals is an indication of forgery and fraud which raises questions about the validity of the other signatures,” Birkhead stated in his challenge.
The incumbent also stated that several Durham County residents whose names appeared on the petition contacted the local elections officials or community members to report “that they never signed a petition in support of Maria Jocys’s unaffiliated candidacy.”
Birkhead pointed to a very much alive 87-year-old woman who, after receiving a letter from county elections officials indicating her alleged signature on the petition had been canceled, “became upset and informed her children that she had never signed a Maria Jocys petition,” according to the sheriff’s challenge.
Birkhead also pointed to a story that appeared in the INDY on May 30, when Durham resident Gina Torres-Perryman, whose name appeared on the petition, told the INDY in an email that she had not even heard of Jocys until she received a letter in the mail from the county board of elections.
Birkhead said that 479 signatures on the petition status report—or 3 percent—were illegible and that Jocys’s campaign has admitted hiring a signature firm to obtain signatures for the candidate petition that gets “paid by the signature.”
Birkhead also stated that Jocys’s campaign “has not submitted proper finance campaign reports which makes it impossible and difficult to research and/or examine the signature firm for past irregularities or illegal activities.”
The sheriff further stated that last year on December 13, Jocys’s campaign indicated in an organizational political disclosure report “an individual contribution as an in-kind contribution in the amount of $50,984 for a ‘ballot access contract.’”
Birkhead closed his challenge by stating that if local and state elections officials determine that Jocys should not be disqualified, her candidacy “should not be confirmed as an unaffiliated candidate until any investigation is completed and the 9,599 signatures are verified by contacting the purported signatories.”
This week, Derek Bowens, the director of the Durham County Board of Elections, told the INDY that although he could not make public “a deliberation time frame,” he expects the board will make a decision at the conclusion of the hearing.
“The Board,” Bowens said in an email, “must issue its written decision no later than 20 business days from the date the challenge was submitted, which would be June 28.”
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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.