It’s not uncommon for local elections to include some write-in candidates, but few receive enough votes to be elected.
But that’s what happened in the Johnston County town of Benson during the Nov. 7 election for Board of Commissioners. Maxine Holley won 172 write-in votes, enough to make her the top vote-getter in the race she didn’t sign up for.
“This is the first time in my career a write-in candidate has won,” said Leigh Ann Price, director of the Johnston County Board of Elections. “She won, I reckon, by word of mouth. It was amazing.”
Some residents of Benson, a town of about 3,700 people roughly 30 miles south of Raleigh, tried in the months leading up to the election to convince Holley to run for a seat on the governing board, but she refused.
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Holley had legal troubles two decades ago as part of a financial scandal at the Benson Housing Authority, where she was chair of the board from 1993 to 1994. A federal audit report at the time found that $1.6 million had been mishandled.
Holley was accused of lying about her family’s monthly income so she would owe less rent for the Housing Authority unit she lived in with her son. She pleaded no contest to misdemeanor fraudulent representation and was sentenced to probation in 1994.
The director of the Housing Authority at the time was convicted of fraud as part of the investigation.
More than 20 years later, Holley wasn’t sure if Benson residents would accept her in a leadership role. Holley declined a request to be interviewed, but her son, Reggie Holley, said she made a decision four days before the election: If enough voters put her name forward as a write-in candidate, she would serve.
Community members scrambled to get the word out. Write-in ballots must comply with specific requirements to be valid, down to the precise spelling of the person’s name.
“These leaders reminded my mom that her reputation is a culmination of so many different events that have occurred in life, and that now is that time the community needed her,” he said. “In her life, like everyone else’s, there’ve been mistakes and she’s made right on those mistakes.
“They said, ‘We want you on our town council and we will go the extra mile because of your compassion, your love, your sense of passion, and your sense of persistence.’ ”
Holley won 29.2 percent of the vote on Election Day.
“You could see it at the polls, they were bringing them in left and right,” said Will Chandler, an outgoing member of the Board of Commissioners. “I think they got together and made some phone calls and decided it would be a perfect time to have a write-in candidate, and it worked.”
Frederick Nelson Jr., Benson’s mayor pro tem, wasn’t surprised the write-in effort was successful. It was Holley, after all, who spearheaded the write-in campaign that first elected him to the board in 1997.
“She’s a force to be reckoned with when it comes to turning out the vote,” he said.
In a written statement issued the night of the election, Holley said she was humbled by voters’ confidence in her.
“We’ve all struggled in life, and it is from those struggles that we become our best selves – that we are more filled with love and compassion for our community and all who live in it,” Holley said. “So, it is with love and compassion for all that I accept this new opportunity.”
Reggie Holley said his mother has done so much service behind the scenes.
“Her life’s work has been investing in other people,” he said. “All the men on the ballot are all very wonderful, civically minded gentlemen, but there was a cross section of the community that my mom had engaged with for all her life that believed in her.”
Maxine Holley will fill one of three open seats on the board. Jim Johnson and William Neighbors won the other two seats.
Autumn Linford writes about Johnston County for The News & Observer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.