By Richard Sullins | firstname.lastname@example.org
Whatever your opinion of the man, there’s little disagreement that Jim Womack is both a man who is passionate about his brand of politics, and also a lightning rod for controversy.
And as the 2022 primary season came to a close in Lee County, it was Womack – chairman of the local GOP – who was at the center of a finish that further raised eyebrows among political observers.
Womack appeared at one of Lee County’s two early voting sites at the end of early voting on Saturday afternoon, May 14, after earlier in the day leaving a message for the county’s chief elections officer about “imaging” the results from the voting machine used there. He also followed, in his personal vehicle, the car carrying the ballot box to the Board of Elections and walked behind it as it was carried inside.
Lee County Elections Director Jane Rae Fawcett said she received a call earlier that day from someone claiming to represent the National Council on Election Integrity. This individual suggested that there was some confusion in Lee County about the “tapes,” or tabulation summaries, that are run after the polls are closed to determine vote totals for individual candidates.
Fawcett told the caller “there is no confusion in Lee County, that there are no tapes run at the end of One Stop Voting. They are neither run nor tallied until after the polls are closed on Election Day. The machines are shut down and are stored under lock and key in rooms that are monitored constantly by surveillance cameras until the day of the election when the board counts the absentee ballots.”
Womack told The Rant “there is no ‘National Council on Election Integrity'” (although one does, in fact, exist as part of a bipartisan group of 37 government and civic leaders created by the nonprofit group “Issue One”. Womack is President of another group with a similar name, the North Carolina Election Integrity Team.
At 2:20 p.m. on Saturday, Fawcett received a voicemail message from Womack that said he and NCEIT Executive Director Jay Delancy would be appearing at the two early voting sites as the polls were closing “to get an image of the tapes. I just wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to run into any trouble doing that.”
The voicemail was released to The Rant through a public records request.
Womack told The Rant that as a registered and trained poll observer, he had twice contacted the elections staff at McSwain about their procedures during closeout operations.
“(Womack) wanted to video and photograph the closing of the polls and obtain copies of the machine tapes, and that is illegal according to the North Carolina General Statutes and Administrative Code,” Fawcett said.
She said it was her impression that Womack “assumed that the machines would be closed down and the results printed at the end of Early Voting. That’s not what happens. We don’t do anything except as we are instructed to by state laws.”
Asked about the presence of a camera at McSwain, Fawcett was clear.
“No one is to have a camera or video camera and use it inside the voting enclosure. I made that clear,” she said.
Meanwhile, attorney Jon Silverman, who is a member of the Lee County Board of Elections said he drove to the McSwain Center on Tramway Road Saturday afternoon to observe as the ballot box was secured and to ride along with staff member Patricia Godfrey as it was returned to the Board of Elections office. Chief Judge James French was also there.
As the polls closed at 3 p.m., Godfrey and French secured the ballot box and packed up the supplies the poll workers had used. They carried the box out to the car and placed it inside. Silverman said during the process “Mr. Womack kept trying to tell the elections staff how to run an election” and said Womack asked to see the tape showing the early voting results.
Silverman maintains that Womack walked out of the building as the box was being carried outside, but Womack said “I did not walk behind the ballot box at McSwain. I simply waited in my car to ensure the box was taken directly from the McSwain Center to the Board of Elections as required.”
Godfrey and Silverman drove the three miles distance to the elections office, followed by Womack in his personal vehicle. Silverman said he believed another Republican was driving in a car directly in front of the Godfrey vehicle, but The Rant was not able to verify this portion of his story.
As the vehicle arrived at the elections office on Elm Street, Godfrey and Silverman carried it inside.
“I then followed the box into the closet where it was to be secured until Election Day,” Womack told The Rant. “I also inquired as to why the ballot box was not sealed (just locked)” but he did not say what answer, if any, he received. The box was secured in this locked room that is monitored under constant video surveillance.
Board of Elections Chair Susan Feindel was present when the locked box arrived, as was fellow Elections Board member Harry Stryffeler.
When asked whether it was odd for a party chairman to follow a locked ballot box by automobile back to the Board of Elections office, Fawcett said, “Yes, it was. Very odd. Very strange.”
Not the first time
Saturday’s incident wasn’t the first time this election season that Womack has been in the headlines over requests for the sort of access that others don’t enjoy.
Before a Lee County Board of Elections on March 2, Womack left a message on Fawcett’s voicemail in an effort to gain access to the county’s voting machines in order to create “training videos” he said would have assisted the NCEIT in preparing poll watchers to look for issues that it considers to be related to election integrity.
The day before that meeting, the chairman of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, Republican Kirk Smith, sent a short email to Fawcett that said, “I have received a request from the local GOP Chair Jim Womack, to use the Lee County BOE site and equipment to produce a training video. Please consider his request as this video would help improve our volunteer poll observers as to their exact duties and limitations.” Lee County Manager Dr. John Crumpton and County Attorney Whitney Parrish were copied on the email.
Less than two hours later, Smith received a response from Crumpton, telling him that the request was inappropriate.
“Kirk – this request has to go to the Board of Elections,” Crumpton wrote. “The Commissioners have no authority in this matter. As you probably know the Board of Elections will deny this request. There are other ways for the GOP to gain access to videos of the equipment without compromising local equipment.”
Crumpton’s email concluded by saying, “I am sure Mr. Womack already understands that he cannot have access to the equipment. In the end, this is really a State Board of Elections decision and not a local decision. Jane Fawcett has already had discussions with me on this subject. Mr. Womack should be directed to make his request to the Lee County Board of Elections or the State Board of Elections.”
Despite Smith’s plea on his behalf, Womack’s request to use the county’s voting machines and have access to space in the Board of Elections office was denied the day after Smith’s email. The Elections Board sought legal guidance from the State Board of Elections and received an email from Paul Cox, the associate general counsel for the SBE, on March 14 that detailed provisions from the General Statutes and case law explaining why his request could not be granted within the law.
What does it mean?
What you make of what happened on Saturday afternoon may end up being colored by your political beliefs.
Womack says his group is “training task forces all over the state to put eyes on every ballot process to ensure proper procedures and statutory guidelines are being met. Everywhere we are inspecting across the state, we are finding election processes are not being properly followed.” He says he has trained 5,000 volunteers across North Carolina.
“As part of my vigilance in Lee County, I have discovered a number of practices that are questionable under the law,” he continued. “The NCEIT Team is seeking to challenge all such procedures and ensure election processes are strictly compliant with both statutes and administrative code. In some cases, we have been successful in correcting the behaviors. In other cases, we have been rejected.”
Womack said 2022 is all about election security, noting that his group of poll workers is very direct and trained to challenge everything that seems out of place.
Silverman doesn’t see it that way. He called Saturday’s events “a blatant effort to intimidate the Board of Elections staff and disrupt the elections. I shudder to think what will happen in the general election.”
“It is critical that the public has complete confidence in the entire elections process,” Silverman explained. “This board and elections staff has worked hard to be transparent, but Mr. Womack has been nothing but an obstructionist and seems determined to do just that – to obstruct the very electoral freedoms that we have.”
Silverman has served as a member of the Board of Elections for the past three years, and for a 2-year term prior to that.
“By telling this story, I hope that the public will rally to protect their right to vote,” he said.
The 2022 primary will be held on Tuesday, May 17.