Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Democracy NC asks Board of Elections to find missing sheriffs’ campaign finance reports

Immigration policy was front and center in North Carolina sheriff’s elections this past year — and pointed to as the deciding factor in many — but races in general have become increasingly scrutinized as individuals gain a better understanding about the crucial role the law enforcement officials play in shaping county policies related to public safety and the criminal justice system.

Democracy NC has been examining campaign finance data for the 2018 sheriff candidates as part of its commitment to ensuring the democratic process is open and transparent and to help the public understand how and by whom their campaigns are funded. Researchers took a special interest in the contributions and expenditures of unopposed campaigns.

In a letter sent this week to North Carolina Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell, senior researcher Sunny Frothingham identifies nine 2018 sheriffs’ races with missing campaign finance data — all of which cross a $10,000 electronic reporting threshold.

“It is our understanding, per the State Board’s Campaign Finance Manual, that candidates who ‘show a cumulative total of more than $10,000 in contributions, loans, or expenditures during an election cycle must file electronically,'” the letter states. “Further, once a committee crosses that $10,000 threshold to file electronically, ‘the reporting requirement continues until the committee certifies as inactive or closes … even if all funds have been disbursed and the campaign has ended.'”

Frothingham states in the letter that there are a range of potential explanations for why there is missing data in the nine races, but asks the State Board to promptly review its files for any missing reports and to contact the candidate committees as needed to access the data, make them available to the public and assign any penalties as appropriate.

“Whatever the cause, this information’s absence prevents the public from fully understanding who has funded key office-holders in several North Carolina counties,” the letter states.

The following candidates and campaigns are who Frothingham identified in the letter as having missing campaign finance reports: The Johnson for Sheriff Election Committee, for Sheriff Terry S. Johnson (R-Alamance County); the Committee to elect Steve Whisenant for Sheriff, for Sheriff Steve Whisenant (D-Burke County); the Committee to keep Tony Durden Sheriff, for Sheriff Tony Durden Jr. (D-Caswell County); the Committee to Elect Kent Winstead for Sheriff 2018, for Sheriff Kent Winstead (D-Franklin County); the Campaign Fund for Jerry W. Jones, for candidate Jerry W. Jones (R-Franklin County); the Committee to Elect Lowell Griffin, for Sheriff Lowell Stewart Griffin (R-Henderson County); the Bizzell for Sheriff Committee, for Sheriff Roger Steve Bizzell (R-Johnston County); the Tracy Carter for Sheriff Committee, for Sheriff Tracy Lynn Carter (R-Lee County); and the Committee to Re-elect Sheriff Hans Miller, for Sheriff Hans Miller (R-Onslow County).

Some of those races show contributions and expenditures that are way over $10,000 that are unaccounted for in the online reports. Examples include the Alamance County race, which reported $48,081 in contributions in the first quarter, the Henderson County race, which reported $41,888 in total contributions in the second quarter and the Johnston County race, which reported $50,463 in expenditures in the third quarter.

The most extreme example, though, is in Burke County, where $124,316 in total contributions was reported by the end of the third quarter — $94,200 of those contributions were made prior to the only report available through the State Board.

The races in Alamance and Burke counties were both unopposed in the primary and general elections in 2018. Frothingham said in a phone interview Thursday that Burke County especially raised a red flag with a “shocking” amount of money not accounted for in reports.

“That just raises a lot of questions for us on what’s going on there,” she said.

It also raises some questions about the State Board’s resources, she added. Democracy NC did not file a formal complaint regarding the missing data, but Frothingham said they are wondering why so many gaps still exist this far after the elections. She added that the organization is happy to serve in a watchdog role, pushing for more transparency, but the missing data also shows the need for the State Board to devote more resources to investigating campaign finance.

As of Thursday, afternoon, the State Board had not formally responded to the letter.

“The State Board has received the letter, and campaign finance staff are reviewing it and will respond to the organization as quickly as possible,” said spokesman Pat Gannon. “We will forward you the response as soon as it is sent to the organization.”

Frothingham said she hopes Democracy NC will eventually be able to review all the campaign finance data to get a better sense of funding for sheriffs’ races. Read the full letter below.



Democracy NC Letter to SBE 8 20 19 (Text)

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Report: NC’s ‘modern poll tax’ disenfranchises residents with felony records

North Carolina still uses a modern-day poll tax when it comes to allowing residents with felony convictions to vote, according to a new report from the Civil Rights Clinic at Georgetown Law School and the Campaign Legal Center.

“Nearly six million individuals are denied the right to vote in the United States due to a past conviction, and, for many of those individuals, the ability to vote is contingent upon their ability to pay an increasing number of fines, fees, court costs, and restitution,” the report states.

Can’t Pay, Can’t Vote shows that all but two states have laws in place that disenfranchise residents who are convicted of certain crimes. The majority of states condition rights restoration, either explicitly or implicitly, on the payment of legal financial obligations, including in North Carolina.

The state requires payment of fines and fees as a prerequisite for voting rights restoration by requiring completion of parole and or probation — which also costs a separate fee. The Sentencing Project estimated in 2016 that 51,845 North Carolinians who were not incarcerated were disenfranchised because of their felony record.

Court fines and fees in North Carolina have skyrocketed over the past couple decades, and it can take individuals years to pay off their debt. It can also lead to an extension of probation and or parole and a delay in the restoration of their voting rights.

“These policies impose a modern day poll tax on individuals with past convictions: but for their inability to pay, otherwise eligible individuals
are denied the right to vote,” the report states.

To ensure legal debt does not disenfranchise American citizens, the report recommends states adopt policies that either eliminate felony disenfranchisement entirely or restore the right to vote upon release from incarceration. Read the full report below.



CLC CPCV Report Final 0 (Text)

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Governor, Attorney General urge court to outlaw partisan gerrymandering

Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein believe GOP lawmakers have used their power over redistricting to insulate the legislature from the votes of many North Carolinians, according to a brief they filed jointly Wednesday with the Wake County Superior Court.

Cooper and Stein, both Democrats, wrote that partisan gerrymandering violates the constitution and the state courts are fully equipped to handle the problem. They filed their amicus brief in Common Cause v. Lewis not long after a bipartisan group of former governors filed theirs, also encouraging the court to throw out the unfair practice.

“From the Atlantic to the mountains, partisan mapmakers have drawn district lines block by block, precinct by precinct, with one goal in mind: stopping voters from voting one political party out of power,” states the brief from Cooper and Stein. “Instead of voters choosing their representatives, representatives are entrenching themselves in power by choosing their voters.”

Partisan gerrymandering, they said, clashes with the constitutional foundation of protecting the people’s right to govern themselves. It also denies voters their right to free elections, denies voters equal protection and punishes voters for their political speech and association, according to the brief.

Cooper and Stein also said in their brief that North Carolina case law yields a test to measure partisan gerrymandering — something no one else proposed during the trial, which led to criticism from Republicans.

“Under that test, a court can find an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander when a districting plan reflects a prohibited intent: an intent to influence the outcome of elections by discriminating against certain voters based on their party affiliation or voting history,” the document states. “This test for political gerrymandering corresponds with the practice’s key features: intentional manipulation of the electoral process and intentional discrimination against certain voters to thwart the people’s right to govern themselves.”

Post-trial briefs in Common Cause were due yesterday. It will likely be weeks or upward of a month before the court issues its decision on partisan gerrymandering.

Read the full amicus from Cooper and Stein below.



Governor AG Motion Notice and Brief 8 7 19 (002) (Text)

Courts & the Law, News

Cooper appoints Circosta to Board of Elections; GOP lawmakers enflamed

Damon Circosta (Courtesy of the AJ Fletcher Foundation)

Gov. Roy Cooper has appointed Damon Circosta, of the AJ Fletcher Foundation, to serve on the North Carolina State Board of Elections following the resignation of Chairman Bob Cordle.

Circosta served on a previous iteration of the State Board as the one unaffiliated member of nine partisan members. His voter registration shows he is now a Democrat – the change is likely because unaffiliated voters can’t serve on the State Board.

The State Board – now made up of five members; three Democrats and two Republicans – will meet at a soon-to-be-determined date to nominate its next chairperson. Cordle resigned after telling an inappropriate and sexist joke at an elections conference.

Circosta said he appreciated the faith the Governor put in him to carry out such an important role.

“Every election is important, but there has never been a better time in our state to put voters first,” he said in a news release. “I look forward to working with the State and County Boards of Elections to ensure elections are secure and that voters have confidence in the process.”

He is currently the Executive Director and Vice President of the AJ Fletcher Foundation. He’s worked in the nonprofit sector since 2007, and said previously he worked with both 2008 presidential candidates – Barack Obama and John McCain – on election issues.

His appointment did not go over well with Republican lawmakers. They had asked Cooper to appoint Gerry Cohen, who currently serves on the Wake County Board of Elections and formerly worked at the General Assembly.

“Governor Cooper isn’t even pretending that he cares about good government,” said Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) in a news release. “By appointing Damon Circosta to the Board today as the tie-breaking Democrat, he’s admitting that his previous appointment of Circosta as an ‘unaffiliated’ member was a sham.”

It’s not clear when Circosta changed his voter registration from unaffiliated to Democratic, but Cohen also changed his affiliation last year to try and secure appointment to the State Board. He had been a registered Democrat since 1971 and changed to an unaffiliated voter for two weeks – he was ultimately appointed to the Wake County Board of Elections as the Democrat he’d always been.

Hise said in his news release that Cooper chose “power politics” over legitimacy and fairness by not appointing someone all parties respect.

It should be noted that Republicans and Democrats on the previous iteration of the State Board had voted to put Circosta’s name forward to Cooper, along with Burley Mitchell’s, over Cohen.

One of Circosta’s first orders of business will be on Aug. 23, when the State Board will meet to consider adding stricter requirements to the voter system certification process. They will also consider certifying a new voting system ahead of the 2020 elections.

The Board had voted 3-2 to consider adding the stricter requirements, but then called another meeting to rescind its vote after one of them said he misunderstood what he was voting on. Without opponent Cordle’s vote, the Board deadlocked and the motion to rescind failed.

Circosta’s appointment will provide the tie-breaking vote on the requirements.

Disclosure: Policy Watch was originally founded as a project of the Fletcher Foundation in 2004 and became a part of the North Carolina Justice Center in 2007. The Justice Center remains a Fletcher Foundation grantee.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Bipartisan group of former governors calls on court to ‘root out’ partisan gerrymandering

From left, clockwise: Governors Jim Hunt, Jim Martin, Mike Easley and Bev Perdue.

A bipartisan group of former North Carolina governors filed a court document today asking the three-judge panel in a partisan gerrymandering to root out the destructive practice.

The governors who filed the amicus brief are James B. Hunt Jr., who served from 1977 to 1984 and again from 1993 to 2000; James G. Martin, who served from 1985 to 1992; Michael F. Easley, who served from 2001 to 2008; and Beverly E. Perdue, who served from 2009 to 2012. Martin is a Republican and the others are Democrats.

Amici served as Governors of North Carolina for 36 straight years,” the document states. “During that time, we experienced highs and lows in the functioning of state government. The highs came when members of different political parties worked together to move our State forward, and when all three branches respected the separation of powers at the core of our constitutional system. The lows came when progress took a back seat to partisanship, and when the legislature sought to expand its own power at the expense of the executive and judicial branches.”

Former Gov. Pat McCrory is noticeably missing from the filing, despite supporting redistricting reform in the past. The Republican served the state from 2013 to 2017.

Post-trial briefs are due tonight by midnight in Common Cause v. Lewis. The two week-long trial ended almost two weeks ago, and it could take weeks or even a month for the three-judge panel to issue a decision in the case.

The plaintiffs asked the court to throw out the 2017 legislative maps that were used in last year’s election and could be used again in 2020. The plan to also ask the court not to allow lawmakers to redraw those maps after violating the public’s trust multiple times.

GOP lawmakers contend that partisan gerrymandering is not illegal and that the maps they produced — as part of a remedial process to correct maps that were racially gerrymandered — were not extreme outliers. They believe that since the U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved in the issue, the state courts should to.

The former North Carolina governors disagree. The brief they filed today says the state courts “should play their essential role here and defend the North Carolina Constitution against partisan gerrymandering. It is particularly critical for our state courts to act in this instance because the other branches cannot or will not stop partisan gerrymandering,”

Democrats controlled the legislature when Martin, a Republican, was in office. Still, he said, they worked together on many important initiatives despite very strong differences on how the state government should operate.

“We found common ground and even led the nation in manufacturing while I was in office,” he said in a news release. “We had bipartisanship when we extended I-40 across the state. We both pushed for improvements in education, even though we had many differences. The current partisan gerrymandering impedes our ability to work together and to uphold good government.”

The three former Democratic governors spoke in the same release about how partisan gerrymandering hurts separation of powers and how advanced redistricting technology “let the legislature run roughshod over the other two branches of government.”

“A separation of powers, as defined by our state constitution, fosters a healthy give-and-take among all three branches,” Hunt said. “Partisan gerrymandering breaks that system, regardless of which party holds the majority. It skews our system of governance by discouraging compromise, increasing divisiveness, dissuading capable citizens from seeking office, and eroding the faith our citizens have in our government.”

Easly echoed those sentiments and said if the legislature won’t fix the problem, then the courts have to. Perdue said it was distressing to see how partisan gerrymandering has unfolded in the state’s history.

“We’re seeing the evidence today of how divisive it is when one party seeks to shut out the voices of the voters,” she said. “It eliminates competitive elections, poisons our politics, and corrupts our system of government.”

Read the full amicus brief below.



Common Cause v Lewis Motion and Brief of Former NC Governors (Text)