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Gaston elections director takes leave

Official scolded by state Elections Board investigator

BINYAMIN APPELBAUM   Charlotte Observer   24 November 2004

GASTONIA - Gaston Elections Director Sandra Page, struggling to answer a growing list of questions about her management of the elections office, will take a medical leave of absence until at least Jan. 1.

The announcement by Gaston Board of Elections Chairman Tony Branch came several hours after Page walked out of an interview with the general counsel of the state Board of Elections.

The general counsel, Don Wright, opened an investigation Monday into problems with Gaston County's handling of the Nov. 2 election. On Tuesday, he began by asking why Page had violated a direct order by opening several e-mails on her computer Monday afternoon.

"It appears in my dealings with you that you can't understand in plain English instructions that would be understandable to the ordinary person," Wright told Page. "Any time that you feel you can't handle the job ... you just do the right thing."

Page replied that she was "not trying to hide anything."

"I'm just making stupid mistakes," she said. "I can't do anything right anymore."

Minutes later, Page walked from the interview room to her private office. She remained inside with her personal attorney, Jim Funderburk, for almost 30 minutes. Then she walked to her car and drove away. The lawyer said afterward that Page was headed to a doctor's appointment.

After a delay of several hours, the Gaston Board of Elections arrived and convened in Page's office to meet with Wright behind closed doors. Only one of the three-member board, Richard Jordan, has been in regular attendance during the investigation. Branch and Lanier Williams have attended only briefly.

The board talked for almost an hour before opening the door. Branch said they had been informed that Page's doctor had advised her to take a leave of absence, and that the board wished her well.

Branch declined to say whether the board believes Page should remain in office. He also declined to discuss the extent of the board's responsibility for Gaston's problems. And he declined to say whether people should have confidence in Gaston County's official election results.

Page, 58, was appointed elections director in 1990. She earns about $43,000 a year. She will continue to be paid while on leave.

Branch said the board will discuss interim arrangements for running the elections office next week. He said he hopes the state board will discuss Gaston's situation at its meeting in Raleigh next week and provide some direction.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, state investigators found the clearest evidence yet that some ballots cast in Gaston were never counted.

A recount of ballots cast at curbside by voters who could not walk into a precinct found that the county had collected 803 such ballots. But Gaston reported only 708 votes in the presidential election, and Wright said it was unlikely that 95 voters had skipped that race.

The executive director of the state board, Gary Bartlett, ordered Wright not to recount the ballots, which would establish whether some votes were missed. Bartlett said Gaston has already reported official results, and the number of votes was too small to change the result of any contest.

The state team set out to investigate five major issues in Gaston: the county's failure to reconcile the number of ballots with the number of voters; 14,000 votes omitted from the county's unofficial results; a disparity in the recount of curbside ballots; the role played by subcontractors on Election Day; and problems with the recording of early votes.

But Wright's list of questions has grown steadily during the 2-day-old investigation.

The e-mails he asked Page about reading were sent by the state board during the week after the election. They asked Page to check whether Gaston County's unofficial results were correct. It turned out that the county had omitted about 14,000 votes, a problem Page did not catch for several days after the e-mails were sent.

Wright said he suspects that Page did not read the e-mails for the first time until Monday, but that cannot now be determined because the e-mails are simply marked as read. He described Page's actions as troubling, an assessment echoed by Jordan and by officials at the state board in Raleigh.

The day began with an unexpected appearance by four poll workers from three precincts who asked to speak with Wright's team. They said they had not received the support they needed from Page and in particular, that they needed more voting machines.

After talking with Page, Wright said it seemed clear that she had kept some voting machines at the elections office despite long lines at polling places. Page acknowledged doing so, but once again said she could not explain the decision.

Even with the mounting problems, Wright said he had seen no evidence to cast doubt on the results of any race. He said investigators would continue their work from Raleigh but might return at some future point. He said initial findings could be completed over the weekend.

"We have committed to answer as many of the questions that have arisen as possible," Wright said. He also promised that the Gaston County elections office would do a better job in 2005 than it had done in 2004. The first test will come Feb. 8, when Dallas and Stanley hold ABC referendums.

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