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The group assembled in the meeting room at the Reynolda Branch Library for a program entitled “Truth Be Told in Forsyth County” last week included both blacks and whites, unaffiliated and Democratic voters, but skewed a bit Republican.

The presenter, JoAnne Allen, a registered Democrat, didn’t mince any words. “There’s a lot of corruption and a lot of voter and election fraud in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County,” she said. Allen reprised several allegations of state and federal election law violations that were aired in early 2011 following complaints by former elections workers and a number of candidates that were defeated in election contests.

“Election fraud is when you manipulate election computers,” Allen said. “That’s what’s being done here in Forsyth County.” The three-member Forsyth County Board of Elections, which includes two Democrats and one Republican, investigated allegations of voter fraud in early 2011 and “found no credible evidence of intentional violations of the voting laws.”

Allen charged that Forsyth County Elections Director Rob Coffman is conspiring with Linda Sutton, the Democratic chair of the local elections board, and a group of elected officials and candidates she called “the alliance” to rig elections.

“It does not matter how many people you go and get to vote for you,” Allen told the audience of about 20 people, including a Republican candidate for NC House and an unaffiliated candidate who is trying to get on the ballot for county commission. “If Rob Coffman, Linda Sutton and that alliance group do not want you to win, guess what? You will not win.” Sutton said later: “We have the newspapers, as well as the SBI that looked into it. The state Board of Elections found that they not see any voter fraud. I’m not going to rehash it.” As a prime example of the alleged fraud, Allen told the audience at the library that election servers were networked in Forsyth County from 2006 to 2009.

“These servers were connected in 2008,” she said. “Now, do I know whether President Obama won North Carolina honestly or not? I don’t know.” Asked whether citizens should hold confidence in the result of this year’s highly contested presidential election, in which North Carolina is expected to play a crucial role, Coffman said, “The Forsyth County Board of Elections provides accurate election results and accessible voting to our citizens. Nothing has been proven otherwise.”

Allen told the audience at the library that under the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002, it is illegal to network election servers. Networking election servers is not illegal under federal law, according to two national election experts, but Candice Hoke, an associate professor of law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law who is recognized as an expert on election technology, said in an e-mail that the practice is “inferentially barred.”

Hoke said the legal duties under the Help America Vote Act “for accuracy and auditability can be silently, covertly defeated by opening the server to the internet. The [local election office] would likely never know their server was ‘owned’ from abroad, which could be a teenager down the street or a North Korean government hacker, or a black-hat hacker paid to intrude.” Hoke likened networking servers to “having a safety deposit box where there are a number of back doors into the vaults.”

“While the network and servers could be configured not to allow such activity, all the scientific studies have shown that the software running the elections (from every vendor) allow easy disabling of such remote access protections, followed by ease in changing the vote totals or ballot definitions, and then ease in erasing the audit logs of operating activities so that there is literally no trace where there should have been records,” Hoke said. “I would argue that it is illegal under HAVA to connect tabulation servers to the internet (and unconstitutional as well), though these points have not been legally established in the court yet,” Hoke continued.

“Also, it is consummately dumb to do so if the [local elections offices] have any desire to produce accurate totals and fulfill their legal duties to protect voting rights.” Gary Bartlett, executive director of the NC Board of Elections, said at the time that Coffman had remotely accessed the Forsyth County Board of Elections’ Unity Election System, which formats ballots, programs election equipment and tabulates results, during an out-of-town conference.

Bartlett’s staff instructed the Forsyth County Elections Office to discontinue the practice and Coffman complied. Allen also alleged that Forsyth County contracted with a consultant — James Dalton, a former employee of Election Systems and Software — without a competitive bidding process and without appropriate approval from the county commission. “So, you see, it was never even bidded on,” Allen said.

“They gave it to him. The man made, I think it was $15,000 off of two or three times coming to Forsyth County. This is the same person who was friends, still is friends with Rob Coffman. But it never got to the county commissioners because anything on that needs to go to them so they can vote on that.” The county provided three contracts for professional services with Dalton Consulting in response to a request by YES! Weekly, each in the amount of $4,500 that were signed by County Manager Dudley Watts, along with representatives of the county’s legal and finance departments, in March 2008, September 2008 and October 2009 respectively.

The services included ballot layout and coding, and accuracy testing, in addition to election-day support The county’s budget ordinance allows the manager to execute professional service contracts under the amount of $50,000 without a vote of the county commission. Watts said under the governing state statute, professional services purchases by the county are not required to be let for bid. “This to me did not look unreasonable in terms of the services provided,” he said.

“It to me looked like a fairly technical review of something that requires a lot of technical expertise, and I thought it made sense because you want elections to go right.” The allegations continued at the library meeting. “We’re talking about a director that actually put blank ballots into the system to be counted,” Allen said. “That’s how you stuff ballots. And then, when he was caught one time… he put it on staff: ‘Oh, somebody put 25 extra ballots in here.’ That doesn’t make any sense.”

Allen said the revelation that Coffman had attempted to engage in ballot stuffing came to light during a 2010 recount conducted at the request of Republican clerk of courts candidate Jeff Polston when 25 blank ballots were found in a precinct box. Coffman said he vaguely recalled the incident but questioned how it led Allen to conclude that he was attempting to manipulate the results of an election. Minutes from a Dec. 14, 2010 meeting indicate “Mrs. Sutton requested Mr. Coffman explain the process that occurred during the Precinct 404 recount. Coffman explained that after the ballots were counted, the total ballots was 25 ballots higher than the total amount from election night. After examining the ballots, it was found that apparently the precinct judge had inadvertently placed blank, un-voted ballots in a voted ballot container.

When the un-voted ballots were removed from the ballot container for a second count during the recount process, there was no discrepancy from the amount of total ballots on election night.” Neither the discovery of the blank ballots nor the recount itself changed the outcome of the election, and Democrat Susan Speaks Frye was ultimately sworn in as clerk of court. Allen said during her presentation: “There are people still at the board of elections who actually saw Rob Coffman count ballots by himself. And, of course, the statute tells you that you have to have at least two of the board members there when you count those ballots.”

A former elections employee, Rebecca VanderKlok, told YES! Weekly that she and Coffman ran absentee ballots through a counting machine outside the presence of members of the county board of elections. She added that she did not believe Coffman would tamper with the ballots. Bartlett confirmed that, if that indeed occurred, it would constitute a violation of state law.

VanderKlok later told Don Wright, general counsel for the state board: “The election law violations, like… the absentee ballots — from the time I’ve worked there, there’s never been a board member present when they were counted.” Wright and VanderKlok quickly dropped the subject in the conversation, which VanderKlok recorded, and Wright told YES! Weekly the local board was responsible for investigating the allegation.

“We all want fair elections without fraud,” said Debra Conrad, a county commissioner who attended Allen’s presentation. “It’s up to the board of elections to make sure there’s no fraud. We all want to make sure everything is by the books. What’s true and not true, I don’t know.” Conrad, who is a candidate for NC House in District 74, said she came mainly to listen. Allen suggested to her audience that there is no room in the middle.

“If you’re not a believer, if you don’t believe that this happened,” she said, “then trust me: You’re just fooling yourself or you’re part of what’s going on.”

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