Members of Durham’s Board of Elections (BOE) on Thursday dismissed county sheriff Clarence Birkhead’s claim last month that unaffiliated sheriff’s candidate Maria Jocys’s campaign petition was fraught with “fraudulent and forged signatures” and that she had “not met the four percent threshold to be named on the ballot.”

Shortly after the BOE decision, Jocys issued a statement to the INDY. She called Birkhead’s challenge “a political sideshow” and said county elections officials made the right decision.

“The elections staff did its job and thoroughly reviewed thousands of petition signatures over a deliberate period of time,” Jocys said. “They determined that 9,599 signatures were valid, when only 9,248 were needed. Our campaign did everything required to qualify for November’s ballot, which will offer Durham County voters a true choice in who is most qualified to be their top elected law enforcement officer to bring down Durham’s gun violence and lead initiatives for true police reform.”

Birkhead, in an emailed statement, said the BOE staff “did a good job identifying numerous irregularities, rejecting the signatures of deceased voters who died more than five years ago and discovering some of the fraud committed by the Jocys campaign signature firm,” but added that the BOE “should have taken the additional step to contact the alleged petition signers to verify they actually signed the petition.

“Given the national climate surrounding law enforcement that has eroded public trust, her campaign’s actions further corrode public confidence in law enforcement and casts a shadow upon the electoral process.”

Jocys said Birkhead’s complaint was a rehash of signatures already rejected by the Board of Elections.

Those previously rejected signatures have no bearing on signatures that were carefully validated,” Jocys said. “The sheriff’s complaint also misinterpreted North Carolina election law and asked the Board of Elections to reject signatures that were clearly valid.”

Jocys then took a swipe at the incumbent.

“One would think Durham County’s top-elected law enforcement officer would take some time to read the law before filing a frivolous complaint,” she said of Birkhead, who was one of eight African American men who were elected in 2018 to serve as sheriffs of the state’s largest counties.. “His only witness was a sheriff’s office employee whom he hired for a job he created after she worked on his campaign in 2018.”

The four-member county elections board deliberated for less than 10 minutes before announcing that the incumbent had not presented any evidence that showed the more than 9,000 signatures that appeared on Jocys’s petition should not have been certified by local elections officials.

“The fact that our staff caught 40 percent [of signatures deemed invalid] shows how diligently they worked,” said BOE member Dawn Baxton, who presided over the hour and a half long special meeting with the three other board members in attendance 

“So, based on the lack of evidence [that would show] the signatories that were certified [are not invalid] the board is dismissing Mr. Birkhead’s challenge.”

Baxton added that while Jocys’s campaign passes muster with local elections officials, the ongoing state board of elections investigation probe of more than a suspect third of the 15,685 signatures gathered by Jocys’s campaign “is out of our hands.”

Jocys’s quest to run for sheriff of Durham County began in late December after she retired from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That’s when the first-time candidate enlisted the services of Mack Douglas, a “Republican-Conservative” petition and signature gathering firm based in Pompano Beach, Florida.

“In 2020 alone, we knocked on two and a half million doors for Republican candidates in two and a half months across five states,” according to the firm’s website. Along with collecting nearly a million signatures across six states on ballot initiatives, the private firm says it “helped place 40 different candidates on the ballot who were running for office.”

The troubles for the Jocys campaign began after Mack Douglas contracted the signature gathering work on her behalf out to First Choice Contracting. The Michigan-based firm is currently under investigation following allegations that a political consultant with the company is connected to fraudulent petition signatures that disqualified five of 10 Republican gubernatorial candidates from the state’s primary in August.

According to Deadline Detroit, state police detectives last week searched the home of the consultant, Shawn Wilmoth, in an effort to determine how “tens of thousands of forged signatures ended up on the nominating petitions of Michigan candidates for governor, Congress and the judiciary.” 

Jocys, pronounced “JO-cees,” is a Durham native who retired from the FBI in December. Soon after retiring, she says she has 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.

Jocys explained during the hearing that prior to deciding to challenge Birkhead for sheriff she had never run for political office. She said she considered the enormous task of collecting 9,248 signatures and decided “I need help.”

She said she checked the Mack Douglas firm out, but didn’t detect any red flags. Likewise, she did not have any previous contact with First Choice Contracting, and when she checked the company out, she didn’t see any red flags.

Jocys said she also enlisted a handful of volunteers who collected between 650 and 700 signatures, but the bulk were gathered by canvassers hired by First Choice Contracting. 

Jocys also told the BOE members that when she first heard of a petition irregularity—signatures on multiple sheets that appeared to be written by the same person, she “identified the canvasser and had them immediately fired.”

During cross examination by Birkhead attorney Dan Blue III, Jocys said the canvassers focused on large gatherings: parades, malls, grocery stores, and the downtown library instead of going door-to-door. She also instructed her volunteers to only collect the signatures of registered Durham voters with an address listed and that no one could sign for someone else.

Jocys acknowledged not witnessing the training that paid First Choice Contracting employees may have received, nor did she witness the canvassers talking about her campaign.

“Jocys did not disclose her relationship with [First Choice] in her campaign finance reports,” Birkhead said in his emailed statement. “Without the hearing today, the electorate would have never known.”

In early May, Jocys announced that the BOE had validated 9,599 signatures from the county’s registered voters in support of her campaign and certified her as a candidate.

She handily surpassed the 9,248 signatures needed—four percent of the county’s registered voter—before the May 17 deadline.

“I am humbled by the overwhelming support from Durham County voters for our campaign,” Jocys said in a press release.

On May 30, officials with the NC Board of Elections told the INDY that Jocys’s campaign was under investigation to determine why the names of thousands of registered voters that appeared on her petition to get on the ballot were invalid.

Patrick Gannon, a spokesman with the NC Board of Elections, told the INDY that more than a third of the 15,685 signatures—6,086—were rejected as invalid.

“This is an unusually high number of rejected signatures,” Gannon said.

One day after state elections officials announced the Jocys’s campaign was under investigation, Birkhead filed a seven-page challenge filed with county elections officials. In addition to duplicate signatures and other irregularities, the incumbent said 41 people who signed Jocy’s signature were dead.

“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’s attorney, Dan Blue III of Raleigh, had a sole witness, Grace Marsh, a sheriff’s employee who stated that she received a letter last month from county elections officials indicating she was not registered to vote and that her name had appeared on a petition in support of Jocys’s campaign to unseat her boss.

Marsh said she became “immediately upset” and she visited the local BOE office where she cleared up the matter and learned “many signatures had been thrown out.” 

During cross examination, Marsh told Michael Crowell, Jocys’s attorney, that she had worked for Birkhead’s campaign in 2018, and was employed by the sheriff’s office in 2019 after he was elected. Marsh explained that the job for her was created to fulfill Birkhead’s campaign promise to be more transparent in the community.

“Would it be fair to say the job was created for you?” Crowell asked Marsh. “Would it be fair to say that if the sheriff lost the upcoming election you would be out of a job?”

Marsh said that’s why “it was all the more strange that my name would appear on a petition.”

In her statement, Jocys echoed a sentiment her attorney shared with the BOE members: the sheriff’s complaint—if upheld—would have disenfranchised thousands of Durham County voters who signed her petition to appear in the November ballot.

“His complaint basically asked an elections board to cancel a democratic choice so he could avoid debate on his record during a time of record-level gun violence in Durham,” Jocys said. 

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