A new election won't be held in Scotland County, despite lingering allegations that the challenger to the incumbent sheriff in the November election bought off voters with money, alcohol and promises of pizza for prisoners.
Sheriff Shepard "Shep" Jones, a Democrat, had alleged that Ralph Kersey, a Republican retired state trooper who defeated Jones by 238 votes, bought support at the ballot box with food, alcohol and cash payments ranging from $10 to $100. Kersey and his lawyer denied the allegations.
After 90 minutes of testimony Tuesday, the State Board of Elections decided a new election for sheriff wasn't warranted because even if some bribery did occur, it wasn't enough to sway the outcome.
"I'm not at all persuaded that under the relevant statute there were irregularities or improprieties to such an extent that they tainted the results of the entire election," said Joshua Howard, state board chairman.
Jones said Wednesday that he wouldn't appeal the case to the courts, saying that witnesses are "afraid to come forward." He also said he called Kersey and left a voice mail conceding the race, congratulating him and requesting a meeting in the near future to ensure a "smooth transition."
The five-member state board, however, is forwarding materials, evidence and testimony to the Scotland County district attorney for possible criminal prosecution. A State Board of Elections investigator also is looking into the situation. Vote-buying is a felony.
Howard, a former federal prosecutor, stressed the need for further criminal investigation. "You can buy votes for a landslide winner and it would not have made a difference, but it's still a crime," he said. "You can buy votes for someone who is destined to lose, and while that may not have made a difference, it's still a crime."
The board's vote was 4-1, with Maja Kricker, a Democrat, dissenting. Kricker argued that she would assume that if any vote-buying occurred, it would have been on a scale large enough to try to influence the election outcome.
Board members said the situation provides new evidence that voter fraud occurs in North Carolina.
"I will say for the media present, here's another example of voter fraud. ... We've had it in Robeson County as well," said board member Paul Foley, a Republican, referring to fraud discovered in the Pembroke municipal elections last year that led to a second election.
Pizza for prisoners
Jones appealed to the state board after the Scotland County elections board dismissed his vote-buying complaint in mid-November because he failed to provide names, addresses or phone numbers of witnesses.
On Tuesday, Jones alleged that Kersey's campaign workers approached people - many in poor neighborhoods - during early voting and on Election Day and offered them food, alcohol or cash for their votes. He said the vote-buying occurred at various locations, including a public housing area, a convenience store and a Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot, and that hundreds of votes may have been bought. He also alleged that detention officers in the Scotland County jail and Kersey arranged for inmates to receive pizza the day after the election in exchange for votes for Kersey. He provided photographs of the pizza to the board.
But statements from about 18 alleged witnesses provided by Jones were short on details, and, in many instances, didn't include information about who they voted for. Jones also didn't bring any witnesses with him on Tuesday.
"Hundreds of people, they all witnessed a felony, and not a single one of those hundreds of people is willing to come here today. Is that your position?" Foley asked Jones.
Jones replied that witnesses were intimidated by statements Kersey made to the media in which he threatened to sue or prosecute anyone who spread false statements about him.
Kersey didn't speak at the hearing. His lawyer, Ellis Boyle of Raleigh, provided affidavits from more than three dozen Kersey campaign workers, about half of whom attended the hearing.
"I think they would all testify to the fact that they were involved with the Kersey for Sheriff campaign and they have taken no action to give any food or anything else of value or money to anyone in relation to this election," Boyle said.
The state board also heard testimony from Chuck Stuber, who is conducting its investigation. Stuber said he interviewed about 40 people, including a woman who said she took $20 from a Kersey campaign worker at a KFC restaurant, but she never voted. He told the state board that he believed her credibility was a "6 or 7" on a scale of 1 to 10.
Asked whether he would agree that something went awry in Scotland County that necessitates further investigation, Stuber said yes, adding that his investigation continues.
He said he hopes to learn who paid for the pizzas for the prisoners. (Those in jail awaiting trial or who have been convicted of a misdemeanor can vote.) Stuber said he spoke to inmates who had been in the jail for four or five years and never got pizza. "Then the day after the election, pizzas were there for everybody, so it does make you curious to find out where those pizzas came from, who orchestrated that and who paid for it."
Patrick Gannon writes for the NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer.