OXFORD — Granville County Republican Party claims they found enough dubious signatures on Chris Smoot’s petition to run for sheriff as an unaffiliated candidate to disqualify him from a spot on the November ballot.
Capping a day-long hearing in front of the county Board of Elections, county GOP Vice Chairman Michael Magnanti testified that a team of volunteers tried to cross-match petition signatures with publicly available documents like real-estate records, and were eventually able to compare them voter-registration cards held by the county board.
They were looking for what he termed “anomalies” that potentially included spouses improperly signing for each other, mismatched names, addresses using post office boxes instead of a home’s actual street and number, and other things that might suggest names on the petition weren’t “actual people who actually signed,” Magnanti said.
He also testified that the roots of the challenge date back to November 2021, when Vance Johnson, who’s now the Republican nominee for sheriff, alerted him to a possible “campaign meeting” at the sheriff’s office for Smoot.
It took shape as the deadline for Smoot to file his petition approached, as Magnanti and other local GOP activists used the statewide Republican party convention in May to consult “with people with more experience” about whether or not it was appropriate to file a challenge.
Magnanti’s testimony built on the questions one of the local GOP’s lawyers, Boyd Sturges, had for Granville County Elections Director Tonya Burnette about the process officials use in vetting petition signatures.
Burnette testified that it includes the use of software that can compare signatures to examples officials have on file to scan for mismatches. But the process isn’t fully automatic and the actual decision to accept or reject a signature is “a manual process,” she said.
She also conceded that there were several clusters of names where the signatures looked similar, although in one such cluster officials did in fact disqualify two signatures.
Sturges emphasized that his point was to have Board of Elections members do the comparisons themselves. “We would argue that this machine they rely on is not reliable,” he said.
The bottom line is the GOP wants the board to scrutinize 190 signatures.
Much of the day’s testimony, however, focused on the meeting Johnson originally called to Magnanti’s attention and one that followed it.
The Granville GOP contends Smoot — the chief deputy and for a few weeks late in 2021 the acting sheriff — improperly used those meetings to jump-start his candidacy and pressure deputies and other personnel in the sheriff’s office to help him get on the ballot.
The first happened on Nov. 3 and the second on Nov. 18.
Smoot and three other sworn staff at the sheriff’s office — Capt. Tim McCall, Lt. Greg Williamson and Deputy Kenny Bullock — joined civilian Administrative Assistant Lara Goss in offering testimony about the meetings and the circumstances surrounding them.
Whether or not the elections board finds the point relevant to its decision about the petition, Smoot may have damaged his candidacy by conceding that electioneering inappropriately went on in the office, on the county’s time and the county’s dime.
The Nov. 3 meeting, the various deputies testified, occurred in the immediate wake of interim Sheriff Charles Noblin’s unexpected resignation on Oct. 27 when he was tangentially linked to a training-records scandal that triggered criminal indictments of suspended Sheriff Brindell Wilkins and deputies Sherwood Boyd, Edward Campbell and Chad Coffey.
Smoot conceded that he told people at that meeting that he was considering running as an unaffiliated candidate. But one of his lawyers, Thomas Currin, emphasized there was a need at that point to “stabilize the workforce” given the turmoil at the time.
McCall — who like Williamson and Bullock was called to the stand by the Republicans — reinforced that point.
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He said Noblin “didn’t talk to anyone at the department” on his way out,” so “no one knew what was going on.”
“Some of the deputies there suggested he run,” McCall added, referring to Smoot. “He didn’t say anything one way or another to my knowledge.”
McCall faced questions about whether he spoken up to urge those at the meeting to support Smoot’s candidacy, but on the stand, he said that while he “possibly” said something, it was to encourage those there to support Smoot as the acting head of the sheriff’s office.
“To me it was trying to bring the department together,” McCall said. “We were split in so many ways and had been through a lot. That was one of my ways to get everybody together.”
Smoot and McCall both testified that at that meeting, Smoot told those present he was running.
“He told us the process,” McCall said. “After considering, talking to this family, he was going to run for sheriff. He went on about the stages he’d have to go through to get on the ballot,” including the need to obtain 1,500 to 1,600 petition signatures.
Smoot said he “did not ask them to go out and collect signatures,” and regarding his decision to run wanted “to inform them so they wouldn’t hear it from a third party.”
Bullock said he’d skipped that meeting because he “felt it was wrong because it was a campaign meeting.” He added that some other deputies were also dubious and named four of them, though none were called as witnesses.
A law-enforcement veteran who’s only been with the sheriff’s office for about three years, Bullock added that he thinks there’s “been a culture of corruption in that place for a long time.”
“It’s not intentional, it’s just all that they know,” he said, after conceding he was disappointed by getting closed out of a potential promotion after the current sheriff, John Hardy, arrived toward the end of 2021.
But he testified that Hardy — appointed after Noblin’s resignation to fill out the balance of Wilkins’ term — on arriving had made a point of telling his staff that when it came to politics, “you can support anybody you want to but just don’t do it on duty.”
Hardy also testified that in his first all-hands meeting with the staff, he told them “they were able to support who they wanted and had to do it off county time and couldn’t use county resources.”
Currin made a point of establishing that there is a recording of the Nov. 3 meeting, but as of the close of Friday’s portion of the Board of Elections hearing, neither side had played it for the board or introduced it as evidence.
The only four of board’s five members are participating in the hearing, as the fifth, Shayrn Alvarez, a Democrat, recused herself Friday morning because she’s kin to a Sheriff’s Office employee.
That left Chairman James A. Wall Sr. and members Elizabeth Torres Evans, Kay Wiggins and Donna Parham to decide the matter. Wall and Evans are Democrats; Wiggins and Parham are Republicans.
The board will reconvene Monday at 9 a.m. in the county courthouse at 101 Main St. in Oxford. Wall said it intends to deliver a written decision by the close of business on June 29.
Contact Ray Gronberg at email@example.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.