State elections officials said last week that the campaign of a formidable challenger for the Durham County sheriff’s seat in this fall’s midterm election 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.

Patrick Gannon, a spokesman with the NC Board of Elections, told the INDY last week that Maria Jocys, a retired FBI agent, 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. Gannon noted that state law required Jocys to collect 9,248 signatures from 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.

“Ms. Jocys submitted the proper paperwork and filing fee,” Gannon wrote in an email to the INDY about the probe that the state Board of Elections’ investigative division is conducting. “The Durham County Board of Elections determined that 9,599 out of 15,685 signatures submitted to the County Board were valid and counted toward the signature requirement. The County Board rejected 6,086 signatures as invalid.”

“This is an unusually high number of rejected signatures,” Gannon later added. “At this time, we cannot comment further, as this case remains under investigation.”

The state’s general statutes prohibit “any person from signing the name of another” on a petition “to have the name of an unaffiliated candidate placed on the general election ballot” or “to have the name of an unaffiliated or nonpartisan candidate placed on the regular municipal election ballot.” 

A person convicted of the offense is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor, according to state law.

As the INDY previously reported, Jocys emerged as a candidate this month when she announced that the Durham County Board of Elections (BOE) validated 9,599 signatures from the county’s registered voters in support of her campaign and certified her as a candidate.

Jocys surpassed the 9,248 signatures needed before the noon, May 17 deadline that was election day for the statewide primaries.

“I turned in 9,599 signatures from Durham’s registered voters, which were validated and certified by the Durham County Board of Elections,” Jocys wrote in a text to the INDY on Thursday. “I qualified for the ballot.”

“I was informed of the investigation and told that there were seven forms that were referred [by the Durham County Board of Elections] to them and that’s what they were looking at,” Jocys told the INDY after reviewing the state Board of Elections email to the INDY. 

Jocys explained that Durham elections officials contacted her in February and told her seven pages that she had submitted appeared to be signed by the same person. She explained that one petition page has lines for 20 signatures.

County board of elections officials told her “somebody had signed different signatures” on the seven pages.

“If all 20 pages had been filled out, that’s 140 signatures,” Jocys said.

In a later email to the INDY, Jocys said she welcomes a state Board of Elections review into the agency’s signature collection process, noting that the state board of elections “needs official petition signature forms that identify the individual canvasser who collected the signatures.”

“Canvassers should be required to sign those forms attesting to the information’s accuracy to the best of their knowledge,” Jocys added. “Current forms do not require the canvasser to identify themself, and that can invite a canvasser to cut corners and submit incomplete information. Additionally, a statement on the form that warns signers against knowingly providing false information would be helpful.” 

While speaking with the INDY, Jocys said the petition forms should include a declaration that someone who willfully signs someone else’s name could be charged with perjury, and that canvassers “should be required to witness signatures [on the petition forms] as they are being signed.”

Jocys also said that “it’s extremely hard to collect thousands of thousands of signatures that were handwritten” and not have issues.

“When you have thousands and thousands of signatures, problems are going to come up,” she said.

Jocys added that the issues may include the names of people who had been removed from the county voter rolls, incorrect addresses, post office boxes instead of physical addresses, illegible names or incorrect names, and even petition signers who do not live in Durham County.

A person living in Rougement who signed the petition might be registered to vote in Person County, she cited as an example.

A blank petition form Jocys provided to the INDY notes that “It is illegal to sign the name of another person to a petition.”

Jocys will square off in November against sheriff’s incumbent Clarence Birkhead who trounced primary challenger Paul Martin and received a slate of endorsements from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, the People’s Alliance, Friends of Durham, the Progressive Caucus of the NC Democratic Party, and the INDY.

Birkhead on Friday told the INDY that his campaign has been made aware of “the serious allegations” against his opponent’s campaign.

“We have confidence in our state and local boards of elections and we believe each will do their due diligence getting to the bottom of this matter,” Birkhead wrote in a text message to the INDY.

After filing her candidacy to become the county’s top law enforcement officer, Jocys said that Durham needed a different vision of leadership.

“Durham needs a sheriff for all of Durham County,” Jocys told the INDY. “Durham needs someone who will partner with the Durham Police Department and the district attorney’s office and rebuild trust in law enforcement.”

Jocys, a native of Durham who graduated from Southern High School, retired in December after 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.

Gannon added that both the NC State Board of Elections and Durham County Board of Elections received complaints from voters listed on Jocys’ petition.

County residents “said they did not sign the petition and/or that the petition lists incorrect information about them,” Gannon wrote in an email.  

One of those residents, Gina Torres-Perryman, told the INDY in an email that had not even heard of Jocys until she received a letter in the mail from the county board of elections.  

“The letter was addressed to me at my current, correct mailing address with a different spelling of my name,” Torres-Perryman wrote. “In the letter the board of elections was notifying me that I was not on record as a voter in Durham County. Evidently, someone had slightly changed my name, and used my address to sign a petition for Maria Jocys to be on the ballot as sheriff.”

In a copy of the county board of elections letter dated April 1, Torres-Perryman’s first name is spelled, “Cina,” and officials told her she had “recently signed a petition” on behalf of Jocys’ campaign “that was circulated in Durham County.”

Local board of election officials told Torres-Perryman that her name did not appear on the county’s voter rolls, enclosed a state voter registration application, and instructed her to mail it back to their office if she wanted to become a Durham voter.

Torres-Perryman later contacted the county board of elections and “they let me know that there were many other altered names to appear as legit voters that had been on her petition.”

Torres-Perryman said she would not want on the ballot a candidate “that was put there by fraudulent signatures, and if the candidate is not aware of this she should be.”

Jocys said that her petition campaign included volunteers, “but also paid people who know how to circulate a petition under a deadline.”

Noting that the original filing deadline of March was pushed back to May, Jocys said she continued to circulate the petition throughout Durham County until she was told she had the required number of valid signatures.

“I didn’t stop until I was told,” she said. “I started turning in signatures in January because I wasn’t going to leave to chance that I didn’t turn in enough valid signatures.”

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