Elections officials have found no pattern of fraud in an Obama campaign voter registration effort at the Free Clinics of Hendersonville or by other voter registration drives locally, Henderson County's top elections official said Friday.
Beverly Cunningham, the Henderson County elections director, said she had been made aware of a complaint by local Tea Party activists that voter registration drives were trying to register illegal immigrants.
"I've been looking at every form that comes through," she said. "So far I haven't found anything....I read some email that said I shut it down." She shook her head. She has not shut down any voter registration efforts in the county, she said.
Conservative Republicans over the last week circulated and responded to an email from the Asheville Tea Party that suggested the Free Clinics voter registration drive was targeting non-citizens.
"The league of women voters was present in the free health clinics in Henderson County signing up folks on voter registration forms for the past three weeks," said the email sent Sunday from Asheville Tea Party chairman Jane Bilello, who lives in Henderson County. "The folks at the clinic were non-English speaking. A concerned citizen called Bev Cunningham, Henderson Board of Elections Chair. Bev shut down the voter registrations immediately."
The email contained several false assertions. The registration drive, under way since late August, was actually run by the Obama campaign's get-out-the-vote effort, Organize for America, not the League of Women Voters. While Cunningham acknowledges she received a complaint about the voter registration effort, she said she has shut down no registration efforts by either party.
Cunningham said the state elections director this week had sent out an advisory urging county elections supervisors to scrutinize all voter registration forms, including those from Strategic Allied Consulting, a voter registration firm used by the Romney campaign and the Republican Party. GOP officials in North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and Colorado fired the company after reports of suspicious forms surfaced in its registration drive in Florida, where the state's law enforcement agency has launched a probe.
'Acting like ACORN'
Judith Long, the CEO of the Free Clinic, said she first heard that Republicans had mentioned the Free Clinic voter registration drive from a donor-supporter of the Free Clinic who was privy to emails circulating among conservatives.
"You need to know," the donor told her, "you guys are being hit on the electronic airways about doing a voter registration drive targeted to illegal residents."
Long said she gave the supporter information about how the voter registration came about in hopes he would share it with those getting worked up about the issue.
"Several months ago, I was approached by one of our volunteers about hosting a voter registration drive in our lobby," she said in an email to the Hendersonville Lightning. "My first step was to consult the NC Center's website on what nonprofits can/cannot do. After I made sure that the drive would be completely nonpartisan, I agreed."
Obama campaign volunteers have been in the Free Clinics lobby two to three times a week since late August offering voter registration. Long emphasized that the volunteers ask everyone who enters if they want to register, without trying to guess at likely Democrats. Before they knew who she was, she said, volunteers asked her several times if she wanted to register.
Because the Flat Rock family health practice shares space with the Free Clinics, the traffic through the door included many people who were not Free Clinics patients.
"Typically the volunteers are scheduled for pharmacy days because those are the days when we have the most foot traffic," Long said in the email. "On any given Friday, there will likely be 20 patients for FRFHC (Flat Rock Family Health Center), 10 Bridges patients, and 20-25 pharmacy patients."
The Free Clinics donor who called her said the Republican web chatter had accused the Free Clinics of 'acting like ACORN.'"
Blair Jenkins, a longtime Free Clinics volunteer and Obama supporter, said she helped arrange the effort.
"I'm not in charge of voter registration," said Jenkins, a volunteer team leader with Organize for America. "I was just a conduit because I had a connection at the Free Clinics. We had others at BRCC, Smiley's Flea Market. There's so many different groups doing voter registration. The Republican Party I've seen downtown."
She said there is no attempt to bias the voter signup offer.
"The organization's realy clear on that," she said. "We've registered Democrats and Republicans. The first question on the form is, Are you a legal citizen of the United States, and they have to show proof, which gets checked out after they register."
Martha Sachs, who was volunteering for Obama at the Free Clinics on Friday, said most people she has encountered say they're already registered or don't want to register. "I'm not promoting in that sense," she said when asked whether she was seeking Obama voters. "I think it's important to register voters."
No 'smoking gun'
Bilello, the Asheville Tea Party chair who wrote the initial email, said in an interview Friday night that she's now convinced that there was no fraud in the voter drive. She credited her organization for sounding the alarm and raising awareness.
"We had a lot of our folks that kind of made themselves known, and if there was anything going on I think they figured out they can't be doing it," she said. "I think they're aware we're watching.... Whatever we did was fine. It would have been nice to get it on tape, what they were doing, it's fine."
Bilello said the Tea Party was concerned because someone at the clinic had reported that prospective voters were "non-English speaking."
"If these people do not speak the language, do they have a translator asking them if they're citizens or not," she said.
She said she understood that campaigns this time of year target new voters however they can.
"That's absolutely legal," she said. "We've had Tea Party people come to the gun show to register voters. It's absolutely legal to register people to vote."
Bilello also said she respected Cunningham, the county elections director.
"Bev Cunningham is wonderful. She is terrific, we have absolutely no complaints about Bev. She has been great. To tell you the truth I'm more worried about the rest of the state. If it can happen here, and this is a very red conservative district, what's going on in the rest of the state? I think what we did was just raise everybody's awareness about this."
Henderson County Republican Party chairman Mike Scruggs said he had not "confirmed that any of this for sure happened. I've heard it from different directions. All I can say is we'll be on the lookout."
The local party has contacted the Henderson County Board of Elections and the staff and had been in contact with an attorney for the state Republican Party, he said.
"Unless somebody comes up with a smoking gun, we're still looking for it and preparing to deal with it," he said. "Beverly is aware of it and the Republican Party attorney is on call and we're ready to act on anything we find."
Voter registration at the Blue Ridge Community Health Services also had drawn suspicion from Republicans. That service is required under the law, and has been offered probably since a 1993 federal law required it, said the agency's CEO, Jennifer Henderson.
"I think the only difference this year is we have an electronic sign that says you can register to vote here," she said.
In an email later, she explained the requirement. "National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires several types of federally supported agencies, including Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) like Blue Ridge Community Health Services (BRCHS), to proactively offer the people they serve the opportunity to register to vote as well as help patients complete the registration forms," it said. "Voter registration is done by BRCHS staff members in a non-partisan manner."
The clinic has registered 40 people this year, she added.
Percentage of Latinos
Long, at the Free Clinics, said the medical office for the poor and people with no insurance would not be an especially productive target to reach Latinos.
Fourteen percent of the clinic's patients in 2011 were Latino; 79 percent were white, 3 percent were Asian and 4 percent were African American. "Of the Latino patients, approximately half of them were documented, so approximately 7 percent of 1,726 unduplicated TFC patients or approximately 120 people over all of last year were undocumented," she said in an email.
Given the traffic from the Flat Rock family practice, clients of the Bridges and volunteers, "the number of potential registrants at TFC (the Free Clinics) who were undocumented would be very, very minor," she said. "We are definitely not targeting undocumented persons."
The clinic has an annual budget of about $700,000 — a third from local donors, a third from Henderson County and state government and a third from grants and the United Way of Henderson County, Long said. The value of medical care and prescription drugs last year was $4.4 million, she said, because of donations of pharmaceuticals and equipment and volunteer hours by doctors and other medical professionals. "It turns every dollar into $6.32 worth of service," she said.