Raleigh, N.C. — Scotland County Sheriff Shep Jones told the North Carolina State Board of Elections on Tuesday that he narrowly lost re-election because his opponent bribed voters with food, cash and alcohol.
The state board refused to order a new hearing, saying Jones did not present sufficient evidence to show the election was broadly tainted. However, the board did vote 4-1 to turn evidence gathered over to the district attorney for Scotland County.
"The closer to Election Day, the higher the amount that was offered," said Jones, a Democrat.
Ralph Kersey, a Republican and retired state trooper, denied all the allegations, saying his campaign had done nothing wrong.
"It's completely false," Kersey said after Tuesday’s hearing.
He won the election by 235 votes out of 10,437 cast.
Kersey did not speak during the meeting, relying instead on his lawyer, Ellis Boyle. Dozens of people from Scotland County, most of whom appeared to be backing Kersey, crowded into the room. Several of them had signed statements and were willing to testify to refute Jones' allegations.
Jones, who did not bring any witnesses to the hearing, had initially brought his complaint to the Scotland County Board of Elections, which declined to hold a full hearing on his election protest. After being rejected by the state board, Jones said he was unsure whether he would appeal to Wake County Superior Court.
During his time in front of the State Board of Elections, Jones presented written statements from witnesses who alleged that workers with the Kersey campaign offered bribes. He said that people were being offered cash in the open for all to see, both during the early voting period and on Election Day.
"People were committing felonies, and they were not hiding," Jones said.
But Boyle pointed out that those statements were largely unsigned, and many did not speak directly to idea that votes were changed in exchange for cash or goods.
"The only potential vote that might have changed is someone who was an inmate at Mr. Jones' own jail," Boyle said.
Jones, who did present a list of witnesses at the end of the meeting, also alleged that guards in the jail offered inmates pizzas in exchange for voting by absentee ballot for Kersey. Those guards, Jones said, have since been fired.
Election Director Dell Parker confirmed that her office did receive 11 requests for absentee ballots from the jail. Of those, 10 of those ballots were voted.
Jones presented the board with 10 pictures of pizza boxes that showed up in the jail the day after Election Day. Instead of being from a name-brand company like Domino's or Papa John's, they were of the kind that might be offered in a school cafeteria.
"That’s not much of a reward," Boyle said, saying that the pictures made his client’s case. "If that’s the quid pro quo, then he's guilty of being a bad briber."
Jones said that, while such an offering might not mean much to middle-class people, a small pizza or $20 means a lot to people who are in jail or living in low-income communities.
"For an individual who has been locked up for four months, that’s a huge deal," he said.
Parker said that, on Election Day, she had investigated allegations of vote-buying near a precinct and did not find any evidence of that. Asked about allegations made since Election Day, Parker said that there had been many accusations and counter-accusations.
"This whole thing is the talk of Scotland County at the moment," she said.
Chuck Stuber, a former FBI agent and investigator for the state elections board, said he had interviewed 40 people about the case but did not find many who were willing to say they witnessed the kind of fraud Jones described. Asked by a board member if he had found evidence to support Jones' case, Stuber said he had not uncovered anything to suggest the election was thrown.
Board members said they were troubled by Jones' lack of evidence, saying that, even if they were inclined to order a new election, they did not have the basis to do so.