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Proposed changes to voter protest process become sticking point at public hearing

NCGOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse and Democracy NC Executive Director Bob Hall took opposing sides at a public hearing Monday about proposed changes to the voter protest process. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

The Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, once members are appointed, will consider making changes to some of its rules and processes. The agency held a hearing Monday for public input.

While not all of the proposed changes were discussed (the 15-page list is here), there were several suggestions for more tweaks and there were several criticisms from members of the Republican party.

The changes to the protest process in particular were a real sticking point for GOPers. The Pat McCrory Campaign helped residents last year file voter protests, challenging residents whom they believed voted illegally. The coordinated effort delayed official canvassing of the gubernatorial election.

Of the more than 600 voting protests that were filed, over 95 percent were found by Democracy NC to be false.

“The current protest form can be easily misused,” said Bob Hall, Executive Director of Democracy NC.

Hall studied the voting protests and pointed out some of the flaws in the form. Dozens were submitted, he said, without the protester attesting that the information was true to the best of their knowledge, without providing evidence to back up allegations and without disclosing help from a candidate, attorney, political party, etc.

“But they could be filled with innuendo and false information, which meant that they could be used as part of a propaganda campaign, not as a legal proceeding,” Hall added.

Dallas Woodhouse, Executive Director of the NCGOP, said the changes to the protest process would make it impossible for citizens to get involved.

“The statute on protests is extremely clear, and what the Board has done, not having the authority, it has added criteria, including disclosure of legal representation,” he said at the hearing. “The Board cannot require a protest be subject to a sworn form under the penalty of perjury. Those requirements under the form are unduly burdensome and risk the chilling of the right of the voters to submit protests.”

Overall, Woodhouse said the GOP opposes a lot of the Board’s proposed changes and repeated numerous times that the document contained “ambiguous, misleading and irrelevant information.”

Thomas Stark, an attorney for the NCGOP who said he was not at the hearing in that capacity but as a Durham voter, had a similar talking point to Woodhouse about the protest changes. He claimed that many people voted illegally, despite Democracy NC’s findings.

“My reaction is that the process actually worked last year,” Stark said.

In some cases, even false protests exposed problems in the system, like a non-updated felony registry, according to Stark.

He also said the proposed changes would have a chilling effect on the protest process.

Other members of the public spoke out about voter inclusion, broadening the rule for language assistance of minority voters, voter intimidation and election observer rights.

Wake County resident Aylett Colston, in addition to giving her support for the protest changes, spoke about a change that would give the Board’s Executive Director power to conduct an election in the face of an emergency, like a natural disaster.

She said she grew up in Wilmington and is very familiar with hurricanes, and while she appreciates the thought behind the proposed change, she worries about what it could lead to.

Democracy NC Associate Research Director Isela Gutierréz presents at a public hearing Monday suggestions for proposed changes to the Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement rules and processes. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“My concern is that with that much discretion in one person that different counties could be treated differently,” she said. “For people like me, who’ve grown up in North Carolina, we well know the different demographics of different counties in [the state] and I would be concerned about uniform applicability.”

Democracy NC Associate Research Director Isela Gutierréz presented the Board with an entire list of requests the organization is making with regard to the proposed changes. You can read it here.

As part of her public comment to the Elections Board, Gutierréz recommended a “Code of Conduct” for poll workers, providing “courtesy and respect for all voters” that offers a uniform experience for all voters.

Josh Lawson, the Board’s general counsel, said they have already gotten more than 1,000 emails for public input on proposed changes. North Carolinians have until the end of the day today to send in suggestions to rules@ncbse.gov.

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