By Gordon Anderson and Richard Sullins | firstname.lastname@example.org | email@example.com
A sample ballot which makes endorsements in three local Democratic primary races and is funded by a conservative political action committee has sparked a complaint by a local voter to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
Volunteers apparently associated with the Lee County Republican Party have been giving voters blue ballots marked “paid for by the Lee County Conservative Ballot Committee” since the start of early voting last week. The ballot endorses mayoral candidate Rebecca Wyhof Salmon, Sanford City Council Ward 1 candidate Mark Akinosho, and U.S. Senate candidate Tobias LaGrone.
Next to Wyhof Salmon’s name are the phrases “Pro-Growth” and “Local Businesswoman.” Akinosho is endorsed as “Pro-Life” (the question of abortion is not under the purview of the Sanford City Council) and “Local Pastor,” while LaGrone – a long shot candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate – is endorsed as a “Pro-Life Conservative Democrat.”
Blue ballots are traditionally handed out by the local Democratic Party. That organization is not currently giving voters a ballot because it doesn’t endorse in primaries. The Lee County Conservative Ballot Committee also has a yellow ballot with endorsements in Republican primaries, including for incumbent interim Sheriff Brian Estes over his primary opponent Tim Smith and incumbent state Senator Jim Burgin over his two primary opponents. The yellow ballot does not make an endorsement in the four way primary for three seats on the Lee County Board of Education.
Jay Calendine, an unaffiliated voter in Lee County, told The Rant he became aware the first day of early voting, April 28, that volunteers at the McSwain Center on Tramway Road and the Lee County Board of Elections on Elm Street were passing out the blue ballots.
He recognized it as the color typically used by the local Democratic Party in the November elections, but never used during the primary.
“To see a blue ballot being handed out at the primary was surprising, to say the least,” he said.
Looking down the document, he saw a disclaimer at the bottom that read “paid for by the Lee County Conservative Ballot Committee.”
Having never heard of the group, Calendine searched for it on the websites of the North Carolina State Board of Elections and the Lee County Board of Elections, but couldn’t find it. Believing this was an unauthorized group who was, in his words, “trying to monkey with the Democratic primary,” he filed a sworn complaint on Friday morning with the SBOE that the organization had not filed the mandatory documentation as required by law.
The State Board of Elections website did not list the committee as an officially approved PAC until Wednesday, when a statement of organization showing Randy Todd, a 2020 Republican candidate for the Lee County Board of Commissioners who left the race after an arrest on charges of assault, as the treasurer. The form is dated April 27, the day before the state of early voting, but is stamped April 28 by the Lee County Board of Elections. It was received by the North Carolina State Board of Elections on May 2.
On Monday, Calendine amended his complaint when copies of the yellow, or Republican, ballot began to be found in circulation in the community.
Most of the candidates on the blue ballot – endorsed by the Lee County Conservative Ballot Committee or not – denounced efforts by a purportedly right leaning group to interfere in the Democratic primary. Mayoral candidate Sam Gaskins went further, suggesting that Wyhof Salmon wasn’t opposed to accepting help from Lee GOP Chairman Jim Womack in a Facebook post he made, and then deleted, on Thursday.
“I saw (Wyhof Salmon) talking with Jim Womack, laughing and carrying on,” he told The Rant. “I have no idea (if she welcomes the endorsement). But certainly appeared that she didn’t have a problem talking to him.”
Asked why he deleted the post, Gaskins said it was done “on advice to not go that direction.”
Wyhof Salmon said she told Womack directly that she hadn’t asked for the endorsement and didn’t want it.
“I think it’s highly inappropriate for the GOP to be engaging in any way with the Democratic primary,” she said. “They can have whatever opinions they want about the outcome of our election, but they shouldn’t be putting out fraudulent information that looks like it’s coming from the Democratic Party.”
Although his name isn’t on the paperwork, Womack has been linked to the ballot by volunteers who have stated that he gave them copies to distribute, including one who confirmed it to Gaskins at the Board of Elections polling site while he was on the phone with The Rant. Womack was unable to be reached for comment.
City Council Ward 1 candidate Ken Britton denounced the ballot, but said he didn’t believe Akinosho had anything to do with it.
“I’m focused on running a clean campaign, and believe my opponent is as well,” he said. “I do not believe my opponent was directly engaged in the distribution of this ‘blue ballot.’ Moving forward I hope that all parties engaged in our municipal elections start to focus on the real issues that are important to the residents of Lee County.”
Akinosho couldn’t be reached for comment.
For its part, the Lee County Democratic Party issued a statement saying the ballot was an attempt to “disrupt our primary election by creating a last minute committee to distribute sample ballots in the color the Democratic Party always uses to confuse our voters.”