A closer look at the DOT contributions

 Following up news stories about the political influence of appointees to the NC Board of Transportation, here are few facts and observations from Democracy North Carolina, the election watchdog organization based in Durham:

  • Campaign reports reveal how the Board acts like an ATM machine for the governor and other state politicians.  Looking at the DOT secretary and the 19 Board members on January 15, 2008 (before Thomas Betts’ resignation), Democracy North Carolina found that these individuals and their immediate families donated more than $1 million in campaign contributions to state candidates and parties from 1999 through 2006.  (Because of incomplete disclosure reports, it is impossible to tell how much money the members raised for candidates.)
  • The $1 million-plus amounts to $50,000 in campaign contributions from each of the 20 families represented on the Board of Transportation.

  • The top recipient of all this money is Gov. Michael Easley, whose campaign committee received $320,000 from these donors for his 2000 and 2004 elections.

  • Other major recipients during this period (1999-2006) include State Senate President Pro Temp Marc Basnight ($113,300), Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue ($94,400), Attorney General Roy Cooper ($67,700), and Treasurer Richard Moore ($38,150).  Donations continue to flow at a rapid pace, as new reports for 2007 activity demonstrate.

  • The Board of Transportation is the closest thing to feudalism we have in NC:  Big pots of money are essentially sent to the king (governor or governor-to-be) and the appointee-lords get enormous authority over their respective territories.
  • A report by Democracy North Carolina when Easley named his first Board of Transportation in 2001 found that of his 14 original appointments to the 14 district seats, 9 of them (64%) were related to the families who ranked as the first, second or third top donor-families in each of those districts to Easley’s 2000 campaign. See http://www.democracy-nc.org/moneyresearch/2008/BOTsumm.pdf
  • Many Board members have distinguished records of public service, but the close connection between political donations and appointments creates an appearance of favoritism and taints their good works in the eyes of a suspicious public.  

  • As recommended a decade ago during the last scandal, we need transportation reforms that reduce the power of Board members over DOT policy/projects AND we need campaign finance reforms that reduce the power of major donors in political campaigns.  Disclosure and bans won’t do the job.  For example, the proposal to bar large donors and fundraisers from serving as Board members has little chance of success without a corresponding carrot – i.e., an incentive for candidates to not depend so heavily on big donors because they have a public financing alternative. 
  • A few other reports about the Board of Transportation scandals in the late 1990s are available by looking at the October and November 1997 reports on the list of reports at: http://www.democracy-nc.org/Research.shtml

Millions of North Carolina Citizens Never Vote, But Presidential Excitement Could Yield Record Turnout

A new county-by-county analysis of voting shows that at least 2.5 million North Carolinians – two out of every five adult citizens – have not cast a ballot in the past eight years.

They didn’t vote in the 2000 or 2004 presidential elections or anytime else. Most of them are registered to vote and just never show up, but about one million are not even registered. 

Two of the largest groups of missing voters – 660,000 African Americans and 760,000 young adults age 18 to 24 – could be especially energized to participate in the May 6 presidential primary, if the pattern of other primary states holds true.     

With that many possible first-time voters, election officials are bracing for a record turnout.     

“If the current trends continue, and all indications are that they will, North Carolina could easily exceed the normal range of 16% to 31% turnout [of registered voters] in the primary election and possibly exceed a 50% turnout,” Gary Bartlett told county election officials in a memo last week.  Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections, announced two grant programs to help counties equip and operate additional One-Stop Early Voting sites for the primary.     

Bartlett also said that about 64,000 people registered to vote in the first six weeks of 2008, indicating a surge in voter interest. Thirty percent of the new registrants are under age 25.

The county-by-county analysis by Democracy North Carolina shows there is plenty of room for growth.     

In some counties, including Hoke, Robeson, Duplin and Harnett, well over half the adults have not voted in a single election since at least 1999. 

In Mecklenburg, Wake, and Guilford, a total of 600,000 adults are AWOL when it comes to voting. A new law allowing registration and voting on the same day could also boost turnout in the May primary. 

People who miss the normal cutoff to register 25 days before Election Day can still go to at an Early Voting site, show a form of ID, register and vote, all at the same time. It’s important for people to know they can’t do this on Election Day itself but for many young people and others who don’t tune in until the last couple of weeks, this new law gives them a chance to participate.

The regular deadline to register is April 11.  Every county has at least one Early Voting site open Monday through Saturday, from April 17 to May 3.     

We’re concerned that counties need to open more Early Voting sites to reduce the stress of long lines on May 6. Some are doing a good job, but others need to be more aggressive about applying for the grant funds and opening more centers, especially in areas with significant concentrations of young people.     

In the past week, election administrators in Wake and Durham counties have begun planning for at least twice as many sites as they original thought were needed.  Mecklenburg, Guildford and Buncombe counties will have about 10 sites each. 

 We’d like officials in Forsyth, New Hanover, Pitt and other counties to open more sites. We can see a train wreck coming – long lines, frustrated voters, over-worked officials – and it doesn’t need to happen.

Other findings in the Democracy North Carolina analysis include:     

• Overall: Statewide, a total of 1,650,000 registered voters did not bother to vote in any election from January 2000 to December 2007.  In addition, 1,320,000 adults age 18 and up are not even registered. Even assuming that 400,000 of that number are not citizens, the total number of missing voters is 2.5 million out of the 6.5 million adult citizens in North Carolina on Jan. 1, 2008 (6.9 million adult residents minus 400,000 non-citizens = 6.5 million adult citizens).     

• Black Voters: Statewide, blacks are registered to vote at about the same rate as whites, but they vote less frequently. For example, turnout among white registered voters was 66% in the last presidential election (Nov. 2004), but only 59% among black registered voters. While 29% of all registered voters did not vote at all from 2000 through 2007, the figure for black registered voters was 35%.

• Young Voters: More than 40% of the unregistered adults in two dozen counties are age 18 to 24. Statewide, this group makes up 35% of the unregistered voting-age population.  The voter turnout rate for this age group is also notoriously low; it was 52% of those registered in the November 2004 election.     

• Women Voters: Women are more likely to register, and vote, than men. Statewide, 86% of women are registered compared to 75% of men. In the November 2004 election, the turnout rate for women exceeded the rate for men by at least three percentage points in Bladen, Cumberland, Durham, Edgecombe, Pasquotank, Sampson, and Wilson counties.     

• NC Natives: Just over half of the registered voters in North Carolina (52%) were born in the state. Native-born voters range were under 40% in fast growing Brunswick, Dare, Union, and several large urban counties, but they make up 80% or more of registered voters in Bertie, Bladen, Greene, Lenoir, Martin, Montgomery, Wilkes, and Yadkin counties.

• New Voters: The five counties with the highest percent of voters who registered in 2006 or 2007 are Brunswick, Union, Hoke, Pender, and Davie.