On Election Day, Lelah Bennett sat down to a free meal of barbecue and sweet tea at Al’s Diner, the ’50s-flavored eatery two blocks from the Pittsboro precinct on West Street, where she had just cast her ballot.
But the circumstances surrounding that free lunch and other election irregularities have raised questions about the integrity of the recent Pittsboro town races and Chatham County’s land-transfer tax referendum.
After holding a preliminary hearing earlier this month, the Chatham Board of Elections scheduled a special public hearing Dec. 6 to further address the allegations. (See below.)
Opposed by the financially and politically powerful real estate and homebuilders’ lobbies, the transfer tax referendum was roundly defeated. In Pittsboro, the anti-transfer tax slate of Gene Brooks, Hugh Harrington and Clinton Bryan defeated the Pittsboro Together slate, who favored the tax. Mayoral incumbent Randy Voller was the sole Pittsboro Together candidate to win.
However, a protest filed by Tim Keim, who lives with losing candidate Michele Berger, alleges the Pittsboro election was marred by “vote inducements” and campaign violations. In addition, the protest lists dozens of ballot mix-ups, later confirmed by the Chatham elections board, which could affect the outcome of at least one race. Berger lost by three votes to Harrington.
For some political observers, the recent election snafus are typical in Chatham County, where the political process seems to be a mix of Richard Daley-era Chicago and the Third World.
For example, just last year, a Superior Court judge ruled the Chatham County Board of Elections broke the law by holding unannounced secret meetings and then refusing to turn over meeting minutes to the public. A new board has since been appointed.
“When you can prove this much chaos, what else is going on that you can’t document?” says Ken Boggs, Democratic chairman of the Manns Chapel precinct, north of Pittsboro. “Pittsboro elections need cleaned up.”
As the 73-year-old Bennett stated in a letter to the Chatham County Board of Elections, she received a call Sunday, Nov. 4, from someone identifying herself as a ReMax representative. The caller offered Bennett a ride to the polls and a lunch afterward at Al’s Diner.
The diner is owned by Shannon Plummer, former chairman of the Chatham County Republican Party and a member of the town planning board. Although he “adamantly” opposes the land-transfer tax, Plummer said there is no connection between his political stance and the diner as a lunch spot for ReMax and voters. “I’m the closest diner to the polls,” Plummer said. “It’s the easiest place for Scott [Thomas] to take people.”
ReMax has been politically active in Chatham County, plastering its logo on invitations to candidate meet-and-greets, and supporting candidates, albeit within election law.
In 2002, led by Scott Thomas, ReMax formed a political action committee and campaigned for pro-development county commissioner candidates, including Bunkey Morgan. In 2004, several of the firm’s brokers owned and ran a Web site for candidate Ann Wallace, and in 2005 ReMax’s Barrett Powell backed town board member Chris Walker’s campaign.
More recently, Thomas was the broker for Pittsboro Place, a hotly contested mall supported by many of the winning candidates and their supporters.
Bennett stated that on Nov. 6, Election Day, Thomas of ReMax Realty and Kathryn Easterling Bryan, sister of candidate Clinton Bryan, picked her up at her home in the Walnut Grove retirement community.
“Obviously, they were quite interested in me voting for the slate of Cotton/ Bryan/ Brooks/Harrington,” Bennett’s statement reads. “We discussed the candidates and the Pittsboro races in the van while we drove to the polls.”
Once at the polls, Bennett stated that Thomas and Easterling helped her out of the van and she met candidates Bryan and Harrington. “I went inside and voted. When I came out they asked whom I voted for and I just told them that I voted,” the statement reads.
Thomas denied that he or Easterling asked Bennett about her vote. He said she voluntarily told them she had cast a ballot for Voller. “We didn’t care who she voted for,” he said.
As for the discussion in the van, Thomas said, “She asked us about the candidates.”
He added that ReMax offered rides to other voters as a favor, but refused to say how many rides or lunches the firm provided. “I couldn’t tell you that. It’s not relevant.”
Easterling declined to comment, saying only, “I didn’t break any laws.”
Campaign, ballot violations alleged
The protest also alleges that Mary Nettles, former Democratic Party chair and a volunteer for mayoral candidate Max Cotten, (who started his own anti-land transfer tax committee) violated election rules by campaigning within 50 feet of a polling place.
Nettles was seen standing within 10 feet of a polling enclosure area allegedly attempting to persuade voters at the Pittsboro precinct on West Street, according to Jeffrey Starkweather, a Chatham County attorney handling the protest and a member of the Pittsboro Together steering committee.
Other candidates, the protest alleges, also were consistently allowed beyond the 50-foot line and “Chief Election Judge Madeline Mason made no attempt to enforce the rule for fair and orderly campaigning.”
Mason was also in
Boggs, a former election judge, called the 50-foot limit “sacrosanct,” adding the alleged “aggressive politicking is just awful.”
“I hold the judges accountable,” he said. “You don’t allow these things to happen.” charge when two voters allegedly cast ballots twiceonce when they were given a county ballot, and a second time after they left, and then returned, to the polling place at the urging of a worker with the campaign of Chris Bradshaw, a mayoral challenger. Mayor Voller is listed in the protest as seeing the voters re-enter the polling place. The voters allegedly were then given provisional ballots and allowed to vote for the Pittsboro race.
Asked about the allegations, Mason said she would not comment until she “has to go to court.”
The Dec. 6 hearing will be pivotal. Gary Bartlett, executive director of the state Board of Elections, said if it is determined the vote-inducement allegations have merit, his office will investigate. The state could turn over evidence to the Chatham County district attorney and additionally, hold its own special hearings. Bartlett said he’s aware of Chatham County’s spotty elections history. “There’s a diversity of opinions down there,” he said, carefully choosing his words. “And there are some people in the precincts who don’t follow instructions.”
Public hearing set on ballot snafus
The Chatham County Board of Elections has verified that at least 26 voters received wrong ballots on Election Day and during one-stop voting. County residents were supposed to vote only on the referendum issue; Pittsboro and Siler City residents could vote for their town officials and the referendum. The board also allegedly ruled incorrectly on the validity of two provisional ballots, according to an election protest.
Moreover, after an audit of the mayor’s race, Board of Elections officials discovered they didn’t have all the ballots. Officials subsequently found the box and counted the votes. However, some provisional ballots appeared to be improperly sealed.
Chatham County Board of Elections Director Dawn Stumpf was out of town and unavailable for comment at press time.
The elections board will address the ballot snafu and other voting irregularities at a public hearing Thursday, Dec. 6, at 5 p.m. at the District Courtroom, 12 East St., Pittsboro.
The three-person board could ask the State Board of Elections to call for a entirely new election or only a special election between Michelle Berger and Hugh Harrington; Harrington won the third Pittsboro Town Board seat by three votes; Berger placed fourth.
As for the vote inducement allegations, the Chatham board will determine whether the complaint has merit, and if so, will likely forward the investigation to the state board, which has jurisdiction over criminal election violations.
Special interests, special handling
It is well known that the N.C. Realtors Association political action committee largely financed the statewide slapdown of the land-transfer tax referenda. But the long arm of Washington, D.C., political strategists also reached deeply into Chatham County.
According to Oct. 22 PAC disclosure reports, N.C. Realtors PAC contributed more than $32,000 during the election cycle to a local anti-tax group, the Chatham Coalition for Homeownership. The Homebuilders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties and the growth-advocacy organization Triangle Community Coalition kicked in another $5,000 each.
Americans for Prosperity-Chatham County also received a $2,188 influx of “in-kind” contributions from its Washington, D.C., mothership, which used the money to hire heavyweight firm Advantage Inc. out of Arlington, Va., to do robo-calls. Advantage’s client list includes dozens of congressional lawmakers, including 2008 presidential candidates John McCain and Tom Tancredo.
Advantage isn’t the only Beltway connection to Chatham County. Stephen Marks, a Washington, D.C.-area Republican operative, visited North Carolina and filed several open records requests investigating incumbent Mayor Randy Voller and town board candidate Jim Hinkley, according to documents obtained by the Indy.
Marks embarked on similar ventures on the mayor and city manager in Weston, Fla. According to the Miami Herald, those records requests occurred around the time of a controversial property tax initiative.
Marks also founded MoveOnForAmerica.org, which ran attack ads against John Kerry in 2004 and worked for the National Republican Congressional and Senatorial committees. He served as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s press secretary during his 1994 campaign.
It is uncertain why Marks cares about politics in Pittsboro, a town of 2,200 people. He didn’t respond to calls or e-mails seeking comment.