Durham board dismisses Sheriff’s complaint against independent election challenger

·4 min read

Durham Sheriff Clarence Birkhead will face an independent candidate this fall, despite his efforts to challenge whether she met qualifications to be on the ballot.

The Durham County Board of Elections unanimously voted Thursday to dismiss a candidate challenge filed by Birkhead on May 31. He contended Maria Jocys shouldn’t be on the November ballot due to fraudulent, forged and duplicate signatures on her required voter’s petition.

To run as an independent candidate, Jocys needed signatures from 4% of the registered voters, which is 9,248.

Jocys, who worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 24 years before retiring in 2021, obtained 15,685 signatures.

The Durham County Board of Elections staff validated 61%, or 9,599, of those signatures. The State Board of Elections is investigating issues with the rejected signatures, The News & Observer reported. Jocys is cooperating with the investigation, said her lawyer, Michael Crowell, Thursday.

Crowell said the sheriff’s team hadn’t “provided anything that we didn’t already know about the rejections of the signatures and the number of valid signatures.”

The Durhan Board of Elections agreed.

“We have not heard any evidence that of the signatures that were verified by the Durham County Board of Elections, that those should not have been verified,” said Durham County Board of Elections Chair Dawn Baxton.

Maria Jocys is running as an unaffiliated challenger to incumbent Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead in the November 2022 elections.
Maria Jocys is running as an unaffiliated challenger to incumbent Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead in the November 2022 elections.

Birkhead’s complaint

Birkhead, in his complaint, raised concerns about some of the names that the Board of Elections rejected. State law requires those individuals to be notified. That resulted in some voters reporting that they never signed the petition, including Grace Marsh, who worked on Birkhead’s 2018 campaign and was hired by the sheriff after he was elected.

Patrick Gannon, a spokesperson for the State Board of Elections, told The N&O earlier this month that the State Board of Elections and Durham County Board of Elections had received complaints from voters on Jocys’ petition, “who have said they did not sign the petition and/or that the petition lists incorrect information about them.”

Attorney Dan Blue, who represented Birkhead at the hearing, said the information provided to the board should make members question whether Durham County wants to approve the petition amid the ongoing investigation and questions about the company hired to collect the signatures.

Crowell argued that the Durham staff did their job by verifying the signatures.

What is undisputed is that the board notified Jocys in April that she had enough signatures and certified that in May, Crowell said, meaning Jocys has met all the qualifications to be on the ballot.

The high number of rejections demonstrates that Durham County staff were thorough in evaluating the signatures, Baxton said.

“The fact that they caught that 40% that is now being looked at shows how diligent and dedicated they were in making sure the information they presented to us was accurate,” Baxton said.

First Choice

In the hearing, Jocys testified that she decided to run for sheriff about a year ago. She started working on her campaign in late November, and hired an election consulting firm, which subcontracted the agreement out to a company called First Choice.

The contract was signed in mid-December, Jocys said. Jocys said the firm promised to verify signatures before turning them in, but she later learned they did not.

As Jocys would turn in pages of signatures, the Durham County Board of Elections sent her notices outlining the number of signatures deemed valid.

Jocys said she first had concerns about First Choice in mid-February, which led to the first of two of the company’s canvassers working on Jocys’ campaign being fired, Jocys testified.

At the end of April, Jocys said she tried to bring in more signatures to the Board of Elections, and an employee told her that they wouldn’t accept any more since they had verified the 4% she needed to be on the ballot.

The Board certified her petition on May 3, about two weeks before the deadline.

Jocys said she first heard concerning media reports about First Choice at the end of May or early June, when concerns were raised about companies gathering signatures for candidates running in the Michigan governor’s race.

In general, Jocys’ attorney said North Carolina’s requirement for independent candidates to gather 4% of registered voters’ signatures is an “onerous” task that likely couldn’t be completed without hiring a company.

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