Haywood voter fraud case sets a precedent
It’s been a week now since White Oak resident Dewey Gidcumb was found guilty of voter fraud.
The case came onto the District Attorney Ashley Welch’s radar following an unprecedented chain of events. It all started on March 3, 2016, when Gidcumb legally voted in the Republican primary during at the one-stop voting station at the Senior Resource Center in Waynesville. Gidcumb’s mistake came when he cast his second vote at the White Oak precinct on March 15, 2016, in the same primary.
About a week later, the double vote was caught by the Haywood County Board of Elections and reported to the North Carolina State Board of Elections. Once investigated by the state, the double vote was passed on to the district attorney’s office.
Gidcumb’s initial reason for voting twice was he thought his votes were for different elections, a claim based on the fact that he didn’t see Agriculture Commissioner candidate Steve Troxler’s name on the first ballot. But when state investigator Joan Fleming showed him a screenshot of the ballot style he had seen both times he voted, Troxler’s name was clearly displayed in the bottom-right corner. He then claimed he did not recall the prior vote at the time he cast the second.
“I don’t even remember what I did three days ago,” he said during the trial.
“That’s just Dewey,” his wife Renee said on the witness stand. “He just doesn’t remember dates, and that’s OK.”
Following multiple testimonies — including one from Gidcumb himself — and a long jury deliberation, a guilty verdict was returned and Gidcumb was sentenced to 12 months probation and 24 hours of community service.
Gidcumb’s fraudulent vote was missed by the chief judge of the White Oak voting precinct, Shevondea Shipman, who initialed the paperwork for Gidcumb’s second vote. During the trial, she chocked her mistake up to simple and innocent complacency.
“I just didn’t check,” she said. “I overlooked it. I wouldn’t have thought Dewey would have voted somewhere else. I would have never thought somebody in White Oak would have voted somewhere else.”
Fleming has been an investigator with the State Board of Elections for almost two years now and was promoted to chief investigator in July of last year. Prior to that, she was an FBI agent specializing in fraud investigations for over two decades.
She said that Gidcumb’s case was unique.
“We have had several other double voter matters where we confirmed it was intentional but there was a plea,” she said.
Fleming said investigations of this kind can be tricky, considering there are a number of outcomes, none of which had even involved going to trial — until the Gidcumb case. For example, Fleming said it is not uncommon for the double vote to turn out to be a mixup, such as two people having the same name or an elderly person with cognitive impairment making an honest mistake.
“There was one person who had a brain injury and was able to provide documented medical evidence,” she said.
And then there are those who vote twice with a fraudulent intent. But what made this case different from other actual voter fraud cases involving double votes was the conviction.
While Fleming said she is “very satisfied with the investigation” and the goal of the state election board is to “try to bring a full picture and quality to the investigation,” she also said that this case will provide a nearly ideal model moving forward. Additionally, she said that with a successful prosecution in the Gidcumb case, her office can now move forward to take similar cases to trial with a greater level of confidence.
“It sets a precedent in the office in that this was the first trial for a case like this,” she said, then later added, “I know for jury instructions, a lot of the time the court will look at previous cases.”
Director of the Haywood County Board of Elections Robbie Inman also said that in his 14 years with the local elections board, he has never seen a case like this. He said that as soon as he realized the double vote couldn’t be easily explained, he reached out to the state board.
When the county election board encounters what appears to be a double vote, it always ends up being one of the mixups Fleming mentioned or perhaps a mistake regarding a provisional ballot, which is used to record a vote when there are questions about a given voter's eligibility, he explained.
“That’s most common,” he said. “To be honest, that’s what I was looking for this time.”
Inman pointed out that although Gidcumb wasn’t called out at the voting precinct as he should have been, the system still worked as it should, and the double vote was caught in the next layer of review. But he also wanted people to know that the individuals working the voting precincts are public servants who generally have a phenomenal record of service, despite the meager pay.
“It’s more of a reimbursement of expenditures than it is a wage,” he said. “They are just there in service of their community.”
How the vote was caught
Prior to a vote being cast, either at a precinct or a one-stop voting location, a sticker with a barcode is placed on the authorization to vote (ATV) form, each of which receives a unique number. When the barcode is scanned, the results are automatically placed in a database. Then, the total number of votes is compared with the number of votes from each voting machine and each ATV form is looked at.
“Each one of these forms is in my office,” Inman said, also noting that he reviews each form, along with the other members of the board of elections.
It was during this double-check that the double-vote was noticed. Once Inman caught the error, he looked at Gidcumb’s voter history, that shows which elections he voted in, and which party he was registered to. What Iman found vexed him. Gidcumb had been a frequent — and legal — voter for about 20 years, a piece of information which conveyed a knowledge of the process and played into Gidcumb’s prosecution.
“Every single vote has to be placed into its proper precinct and party,” he said. “It’s all public record.” He also added that he frequently gets requests for information from students and special interest groups conducting research.
Both Fleming and Inman said they were impressed by how well the system worked and trial worked, considering this was the first case of its kind.
“It’s a good day for justice because everyone did what they were supposed to do,” Fleming said.
Elections: An apolitical process
Inman said the election process is much more complicated than what people tend to see on election day, and the intricate process is in place largely to ensure a fair election.
“You may have to stand in line, but that should be the biggest inconvenience you face,” he said. “But elections are not over on election night.”
Even though it didn’t play into the Gidcumb case, another layer of security which ensures the integrity of the voting process is the ability of any voter to challenge any other voter in the county. If someone would like to challenge a voter, all they have to do is make it known at the precinct and then the burden of proof will be on the person who issued the challenge to prove that there was false information provided.
“If you know that person next to you, when they say their name and address and you know it’s incorrect, you can challenge them,” he said.
Another example of the intended apolitical nature of the process is the makeup of voter precinct judges. While the chief judge is appointed by the chairman of the voting precinct (a partisan appointment), it is prohibited that all three precinct judges come from the same party, a move intended to ensure integrity.
Inman wanted to make sure that Haywood County residents know that Gidcumb’s case should not discourage anyone from having confidence in the process or their participation therein.
“Nothing is more transparent than an election,” he said, nothing that his board always does its due diligence.
“That’s something I’m really proud of.”
Another element that makes this case unique — and proves the built-in protection from partisan influence — is the role that the district attorney’s office had to play. While the office usually is able to use its own discretion when deciding whether to pursue prosecution, there is no wiggle room when it comes to voter fraud.
“It shall be the duty of the State Board of Elections and the district attorneys to investigate any violations of this Article,” the applicable statute (G.S. 163-278) says. It continues later on to say, “The district attorney shall initiate prosecution and prosecute any violations of this Article.”
In addition, if the district attorney fails to prosecute, a special prosecutor may be appointed to the case. By saying the district attorney has to prosecute, it removes the ability of the office to defer prosecution based on political reasons. This goes to further prove the amount of thought put into the effort to preclude introduction of political motives, thus ensuring the integrity of our election process.
Although assistant district attorney Jeff Jones, who argued the case on behalf of the state, would not comment about the case on the record, the district attorney’s office did provide a press release on Feb. 9.
“That’s what this case is about,” Welch said in the release. “Regardless of political views or party affiliations, the very foundations of our democracy depend on fair voting practices.”
Both Fleming and Inman echoed Welch’s sentiments.
“Their voice is heard with equal volume,” Inman said. “They all matter the same. One person, one vote.”