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Graham County Election Board reviewing voter fraud allegations

The voter registration challenge was brought forward by incumbent town council member Diana Simon.
Cory Vaillancourt
The voter registration challenge was brought forward by incumbent town council member Diana Simon.

Voter fraud is extremely rare. But in Graham County, the local Election Board is reviewing allegations that fraudulent registrations tipped the results of municipal elections in the small town of Lake Santeetlah. BPR’s Lilly Knoepp spoke with Smoky Mountain News politics editor Cory Vaillancourt, who’s been following the story.

The town council election in Lake Santeetlah in 2021 was extremely close and consequential: three incumbents from the town board lost their positions. But when those incumbents started looking at the ballots there were some unfamiliar names listed. The incorporated township is home to about 50 registered voters, explains Vaillancourt.

“This is the most curious case: Dean and Linda Hutsell. Dean Hutsell is a veterinarian in Buncombe County. He, his wife and their four daughters all registered on the same day at the same address to a house in Lake Santeetlah that had burned down in 2019,” explained Vaillancourt.

There was a three-way tie in the election for second place with 14 write-in votes for each candidate. Tina Emerson, Constance Gross and Ralph Mitchell were the three new town council members along with incumbents Diana Simon and Jim Hager.

Incumbent Diana Simon alleged that eight voters were fraudulent and filed a challenge with Graham County Board of Elections (BOE) in July. In an initial hearing, the Graham BOE found there was probable cause that the six Hutsell and two other voters, the Emersons, did fraudulently vote.

The main issue on the ballot during the election was zoning. There are disagreements among residents about where homes can be built near the lake, who has water rights and other property management issues.

Recently, the Hutshells updated their registrations to Fairview, explained Vaillancourt. This means that their registration in Graham County can’t be disputed but they could still be charged with casting fraudulent ballots.

No matter what happens with the charges the election stands because it was certified by the Graham County BOE.

“Those results stand and if these folks have in fact committed wrongdoing, then they will be dealt with through the criminal system,” said Vaillancourt.

The Graham County Election BOE hearing will be held September 28th. On Monday, Vaillancourt reported that the legal requirements for the special meeting might not have been met. The main issue is that the Graham County Board of Elections has not added the meeting notice to their website. A lawyer who has represented the county says that posting the meeting on Facebook might be enough to meet the legal requirement.

BPR Board Chair John Noor is part of the legal team working on this case. This story was reported independently by Smoky Mountain News.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.