By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
An audit of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ 2017 General Election and recounts alleges ballot tampering and voter fraud. The report, conducted by Veriti Consulting LLC, was completed on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018 and subsequently delivered to tribal leaders.
“In summary, it is Veriti’s opinion there was ballot tampering between Election Day and the Recount due to significant internal control weaknesses in the election process and safeguarding of election documentation,” the report states. “It is impossible to determine who the person or persons were that committed the alleged ballot tampering. Further analysis and review of all internal controls related to the election process should be performed to further assess, and strengthen policies and procedures.”
In a letter to the EBCI Executive Office, dated Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, Sharon Blankenship, EBCI Office of Internal Audit and Ethics chief audit and ethics executive, stated that her office retained the services of Veriti to investigate “alleged election regularities” in the Sept. 7, 2017 General Election and the recounts that followed. “Veriti completed its field work relative to the allegations which included an independent and objective review of all pertinent documents, video recordings, and interviews with select individuals specifically regarding the elections in Birdtown, Wolftown, and Big Y. The results of Veriti’s investigation strongly suggest ballot tampering occurred.”
The Birdtown Community was a large focus of the investigation. Boyd Owle (506 votes) was in first place following the General Election with a large lead over Albert Rose (431) and Ashley Sessions (419). A recount was held for the community on Sept. 13, 2017, and the total number of ballots increased by 78.
“The change in ballot counts between Election Day and the Recount resulted in the third-place candidate, Sessions, moving into the second-place position,” the report states. “After challenges by both Rose and Sessions, the Board of Elections called for the Run-off election on Oct. 10, 2017, between Rose and Sessions. Rose won the Run-off election by a wide margin.”
During its investigation, Veriti related that their staff toured polling locations (Birdtown, Wolftown, Big Y), reviewed Board of Elections documents, assessed the security and safeguarding at both the Board of Elections and the BIA offices, reviewed ballots and ballot bins, and more.
In a section of the report entitled “Conclusion of Birdtown Ballots”, Veriti notes, “It appears the General Election in Birdtown, specifically the Early Ballots and Undervote Ballots, were altered between Election Day and the Recount. The fact there was an increase of 86 additional votes per the Recount and a decrease in the Undervote ballots supports our conclusion that ballot tampering occurred.”
The report states the same for the Wolftown Community. “…the discrepancy in both the Election Day and the Recount appear to be the result of possible ballot tampering with the Early Ballots and Undervote Ballots…however, in Wolftown, there was no change in the outcome of the election results.”
The finding for the Big Y precinct states, “The discrepancy in the Big Y’s election process appears to also be related to the Early Ballots and Undervote Ballot tampering with votes possibly being altered to add additional votes…however, in Big Y, there was no change to the outcome of the election results.”
Of particular interest in the report are the storage bins containing the ballots. Veriti noted in the report, “Each type of bin was ‘sealed’ shut with a numbered zip tie. However, even with the security seals in place, several bin types remained unsecured. With minimal effort, we opened the sealed bins and slid our arm in and removed ballots.”
The report went on to note, “The unsecured, but sealed, storage bins would have permitted the possible manipulation of General Election ballots between the election night count on Sept. 7, 2017 and the Recount on Sept. 13, 2017. Anyone with access to the BIA Vault could have added, removed, or altered ballots with relative ease. Based upon election data previously described, we believe this may have been the means by which an unknown person or persons altered ballots.”
Another area of security addressed in the report involves the locations themselves and security cameras used in the Election Board office and at the BIA Vault where ballots were stored. “Veriti inspected the BIA Vault on four separate occasions, noting it was unlocked each time. On one occasion, all BIA staff were in a meeting room at the opposite side of the BIA building while Veriti accessed the vault unnoticed.”
Cameras record all activity in the BIA hallways, according to the report, but, “The data from the cameras is stored for 30 days. When Veriti was onsite, it had been more than 30 days since any election activity.”
Several tribal leaders addressed the findings in the report during the regular session of Tribal Council on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018.
“The audit simply points out that there was ballot tampering,” said Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed who referenced the ease of which auditors were able to reach into the ballot boxes. “You see a picture of one auditor pulling the box open even though it has ties on it. There’re pictures of them holding it up with their other hand in there…so, ballot security is an issue.”
He added, “When we’re dealing with audits, it’s not enough to read it and then say that needs to be corrected. The Board of Elections needs to be given direction, and they need to come back with a plan on how they’re going to correct it. There needs to be a timeline in there, and there needs to be oversight. But, more importantly, there needs to be a deadline.”
Big Cove Rep. Perry Shell related he was both upset and sad after reading the report, “I think it’s imperative, and I think that people to need to know that, based upon the findings of this audit, that fraud was committed. Over 70 votes were tampered with.”
Birdtown Rep. Boyd Owle said, “We need to get our integrity back to our voting system here. It’s the democratic way to go. If we have to have a police officer standing by the ballot box, then that’s maybe what we have to do. It’s sad.”
Echoing those sentiments, Birdtown Rep. Albert Rose said it was very disturbing, and he called for criminal charges. “They can’t determine the person or persons that committed this, but you know, I’m sure we can find out. We need to find out because the anxiety in what they’ve done to the Birdtown Community them three weeks from the time of the General Election to the Recount should have never happened.”
He added, “Seventy-eight (78) votes just mysteriously showed up.”
The EBCI Election Board said in a statement on Friday, Feb. 2, “The BOE (Board of Elections) appreciates the time and the thoroughness of Veriti Consulting during this investigation and is committed to work on the recommendations provided. Sadly, it does seem the Board’s suspicions regarding the election outcome has been validated. It is the Board’s hope the investigation will continue and the person or persons responsible will be found. The BOE cannot continue to be housed in a non-secure building, we are eager to meet with the Executive Committee and Tribal Council to find a safe secure location.”