Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

ICYMI: Board of Elections chairman resigns after misogynistic joke; voting systems vote could be up in air

The Chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Elections resigned Tuesday after backlash from a joke he made at a conference earlier this week comparing women to cows that refuse sex.

Bob Cordle, a Democrat appointed to the helm by Gov. Roy Cooper, tendered his resignation effective immediately. He is the second Cooper appointee to resign amid criticism about their behavior — Andy Penry left the post after making critical comments about President Donald Trump online.

“I sincerely apologize to those who heard my joke at the elections conference on Monday and all those affected by my words,” Cordle said in his resignation letter. “I thank you for the privilege to serve my state and the citizens of North Carolina in this important position and wish my fellow board members, Executive Director Brinson Bell and State Board staff success in upcoming elections.”

WRAL first reported the story, and Wake County Board of Elections member Gerry Cohen, who was at the elections conference Cordle spoke at, told the TV station his remarks were “an extremely lengthy dirty joke” that was “misogynistic and wildly inappropriate for a high-ranking state official to tell … to kick off a training session of 600 election officials and administrators.”

Cooper, who accepted Cordle’s resignation Tuesday, will appoint the next Chairman, but it’s unclear how soon. Whomever takes over will be the fourth chair of the Board in eight months, since the structure changed after litigation.

Cooper’s spokesman, Ford Porter, thanked Cordle for his service in an emailed statement to the media.

“The State Board of Elections needs to continue its important work without distraction to ensure the integrity of our electoral process,” he said.

Cordle’s departure comes as the State Board is set to make a decision about certifying voting systems ahead of the 2020 elections. He had voted against postponing the decision on which systems to certify so that the Board could adopt stricter requirements to bolster election security.

It was a 3-2 vote Monday night, but the Board gave notice Tuesday of another planned meeting for Thursday morning to rescind that vote. Cordle said in response to the course reversal that fellow Board member David Black, a Republican, had misunderstood the repercussions of voting for the motion and wanted to instead proceed with the certification process.

Without Cordle’s vote at the meeting, the Board could be deadlocked in its next decision about certification.

The meeting is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday in the boardroom on the 3rd Floor of the Dobbs Building, 430 N. Salisbury Street, in Raleigh. Members of the public can attend in-person or listen to audio of the meeting by calling 213-929-4212 (code 757-613-568).

Read Cordle’s letter of resignation below.

LetterofResignation Robert Cordle1 (Text)

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Democracy NC: Tell Board of Elections to vote for paper ballots

The North Carolina State Board of Elections is set to decide tonight whether it will continue to certify touch-screen voting systems or return to analog paper ballots.

Voting rights groups are urging the Board to return to paper for a number of reasons, but the big one being security issues.

“Specifically, while a new generation of touch-screen machines known as ballot-marking devices (BMDs) improve on the touchscreen systems currently used in parts of North Carolina, we are concerned that these machines raise a new set of security and usability challenges,” states a Democracy NC web page. “We have urged the State Board to to limit touchscreen BMDs for use with voters with accessibility needs and certify only those machines that tabulate hand-marked ballots — the sort of system used in much of the state.”

About one-third of the state uses touch-screen voting. The certification of new voting systems would empower the 100 county boards of elections to choose equipment that best serves their voters in 2020 and beyond.

Some voting machines used in North Carolina are more than a decade old.

The meeting tonight is a continuation of one from Sunday night. The Board had postponed its decision to tonight, and will choose from three vendors. Read more information about it here, and see agenda items here.

The public can attend the meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. in the Triangle Ballroom at Cary Embassy Suites, 201 Harrison Oaks Blvd., Cary, 27513. They can also listen to proceedings by calling 914-614-3221 (code 944-047-563).

Democracy NC is encouraging North Carolinians to also reach out to the Board ahead of the meeting to urge them to vote for a paper-ballot system. Read more about how to do that here.

“This is important because when it comes to machines, we care about access, security, and confidence,” the organization’s website states. “Voters deserve election infrastructure they can trust. As next year’s elections approach, public interest and concern in systems especially and security practices generally will only increase.”

Read NC Policy Watch tomorrow afternoon for an update about the vote.

Courts & the Law, News

Conclusion of partisan gerrymandering trial ‘key first step’ to getting fair maps

A Wake County Superior Court three-judge panel is deliberating now after a two-week trial about whether North Carolina’s 2017 legislative maps are unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Two weeks of evidence about whether North Carolina’s 2017 legislative maps were intentionally gerrymandered for partisan purposes ended Friday, and the plaintiffs in the case plan to ask a three-judge panel not to give lawmakers another round at the drawing board.

“It’s because of this series of what we believe to be violations of the public’s trust that we’re going to ask this court to not only strike these maps, but to not give the legislature the opportunity to redraw them,” said Daniel Jacobson, an attorney for the plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Lewis.

All of the plaintiffs’ attorneys spoke briefly after the conclusion of the trial. Jacobson pointed out that the legislative defendants in the case did not successfully refute evidence they put on that the late GOP mapmaker, Thomas Hofeller, drew 95 percent of the Senate plan before the public redistricting process took place and 90 percent of the House plan.

An expert witness for legislative leaders tried to show that claim wasn’t true, but his analysis was so flawed, the court threw out his testimony relating to Hofeller’s draft maps and the legislature’s enacted maps.

Jacobson said legislators lied to a federal court about not having drawn the plans and convinced them not to hold a special election, then lied to the public about its redistricting process — the maps were nearly completed the whole time.

“The legislature simply cannot be trusted to again have another opportunity to draw these maps again, and the courts should do it itself,” he said.

Daniel Jacobson, an attorney for the plaintiffs in a partisan gerrymandering trial, said he plans to ask a court not to let North Carolina lawmakers draw another map if they prevail. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Lawmakers have denied lying to the federal court.

Phil Strach, an attorney for the legislative defendants in Common Cause did not comment Friday after the trial and instead referred questions to his clients.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore, Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) did not respond to an email seeking either comment or the closing arguments Strach would have made (all parties agreed to waive closing). They did, however, send Strach’s closing arguments to other media outlets.

The legislative defendants’ last two expert witnesses, Michael Barber, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, and Thomas Brunell, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, tried to refute several of the plaintiffs’ expert reports.

Brunell said it was great so many scholars were weighing in, but noted that much of their relatively new research was not yet ready for “prime time.” He added that there was absolutely no way of knowing what was in Hofeller’s mind when he drew North Carolina’s maps, so it wouldn’t be possible to prove intent.

Thomas Brunell testified last week at a partisan gerrymandering trial on behalf of Republican legislative defendants. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“There’s no way of knowing why it’s this way,” he said.

Barber spoke on the stand about how it would be difficult to measure North Carolina’s true electorate ideology, and that conclusions made by the plaintiffs’ experts about it were insufficient.

During cross examination, Barber was asked what he would tell a student if they asked if partisan gerrymandering was bad for American democracy. He responded that the issue is complicated and he would say there are a number of factors that go into such a conclusion.

When asked the same question about his response to an 8-year-0ld if they asked him if partisan gerrymandering was bad for democracy, Barber balked.

“I think this is a ridiculous question,” he said. “I don’t interact with a lot of 8-year-olds, so I’m not sure about their level of political information. I would probably tell the 8-year-old that there is interesting research in political science that they should read to assess these conclusions, and that when they’re grown up they should take my class.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys criticized the legislative defendants’ defense after the trial.

“They didn’t have a single fact witness get up in trial and say, ‘we didn’t do it,'” said Stanton Jones. “No one came into court to deny that what happened here was that Dr. Hofeller, the mapmaker, working at the direction of the legislative leaders in the General Assembly, gerrymandered the map as best as he absolutely could to advantage Republicans and to minimize the representational rights of Democrats. No one came in to court over the past two weeks to deny that it’s exactly what happened, and it is.”

He added that none of the legislative defendants’ experts provided any evidence to show North Carolina’s 2017 legislative maps were anything other than extreme partisan gerrymanders.

“The Republican legislative leaders will predictably ask the courts of this state to do what the U.S. Supreme Court has recently done, which is to throw up its hands and to say ‘partisan gerrymandering in this extreme form may be unfair, it may be discriminatory, it may be anti-democratic, it may be unconstitutional, but we’re just not going to do anything about it,'” Jones said.

It could be weeks or even upward of a month or longer before the three-judge panel — Judges Paul Ridgeway, Alma Hinton and Joseph Crosswhite — make their decision in the case. Post-trial briefs are due Aug. 7.

Whatever the outcome in Wake County Superior Court, either losing party will almost certainly appeal to a higher court, and eventually, the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina, hopes the state will finally be pushed into passing redistricting reform. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Bob Phillips, Executive Director of plaintiff and redistricting reform group Common Cause North Carolina, said he believes the partisan gerrymandering case to be the most consequential and significant redistricting trial in the history of the state.

“What’s at stake is ending partisan gerrymandering once and for all in North Carolina,” he said after the trial. “I personally believe we are on the path to doing that. And what’s at stake for every citizen in North Carolina is fair maps. That’s what we want. … This is a key first step.”

agriculture, Commentary, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, Legislature

The week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch


1. In the IStation saga, Mark Johnson’s failings get a big stage

If North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson ever fizzled in his lustrous perch in DPI’s corner office, his sharpest critics surmised, he would be failed by his extraordinarily limited bona fides.

After all, when it comes to Johnson’s background – two years in a Charlotte classroom via Teach for America, a stint as a corporate attorney, and a brief tenure as a school board member in Winston-Salem – there is simply not much to parse over.

“I mean, he has taught two years,” a flabbergasted June Atkinson marveled in 2016, with no small amount of condescension, when Johnson ousted her. “He’s never run an organization that has almost 900 people. He has never traveled to the 100 counties. He doesn’t have a background. So, it’s like, how do I teach or how do I help a person who is an infant in public education to become an adult overnight to be able to help public education in this state?”

The image conjured up by Atkinson’s damning assessment – that of an in-over-his-head novice – endures today among Johnson’s detractors.

But after IStation, after the iPads, after the supremely suspect rollout of the superintendent’s propagandizing website, perhaps we were wrong. [Read more…]

Bonus read: Monday numbers: A closer look at the depleted ranks at the Department of Public Instruction


2. NC Supreme Court justice publicly maligns colleagues, urges critics of America to “just leave” the country

State judicial code makes discipline unlikely for Justice Paul Newby

The only registered Republican on the state Supreme Court likely won’t face any consequences after publicly disparaging his fellow justices, urging a crowd to watch their work over the next 18 months for judicial activism, and telling people who don’t like America to “just leave.”

“Sue till you’re blue. Sue till you’re blue,” said Paul Newby during a speech in Wake County two weekends ago. “What do you think the most dangerous branch of government is? The judicial branch is the correct answer. Imagine seven AOC’s on the state Supreme Court.”

Newby, who has announced he will run for Chief Justice in 2020, was met with clapping and a loud “boo” from the crowd. He was referring to New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose initials have become a sort of Republican slur. [Read more…]


3. Unbecoming of a judge: NC Supreme Court justice’s Trump-like comments go too far

It’s no secret that the United States has a significant and growing problem when it comes to the matter of selecting judges. This problem was on vivid public display in 2016, when the Republican majority of the United States Senate refused to consider a highly qualified presidential nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly a full year on blatantly partisan grounds.

As troubling as the blockade of Merrick Garland and the subsequent flood of frequently unqualified ideologues advanced by President Donald Trump have been, however, the situation is arguably even more dire at the state level, where the phenomenon of judges running for election continues to give rise to all manner of problematic behavior – both by judicial candidates themselves and the forces supporting and opposing their candidacies.

As Policy Watch journalist Melissa Boughton reported yesterday, there was a new and troubling installment in this ongoing saga last week when North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby let loose with a startlingly partisan attack on his fellow justices during a speech to a Wake County Republican audience.[Read more…]


4. Hours wasted and a flip-flop on hemp in the Farm Act befuddles House committee

The NC Farm Act: Four months, seven editions, at least a dozen hours of committee hearings and legislative staff time, reams of paper, hundreds of miles of travel by the public, some from as far away as the mountains — and today the bill is back to its original Senate form.

“Why is the ag committee chair [Rep. Jimmy Dixon] taking a different position than earlier in the process?” Rep. Chuck McGrady said in the House Judiciary Committee this morning. “I’m confused.”[Read more…]


5. Activists to Congress: N.C. residents living ‘on bottled water and fear’ 

What did leading chemical corporations know about the health risks of PFAS, and when did they know it?

Members of Congress sought an answer to that question this week at a hearing on widespread public exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a dangerous class of chemicals that’s ubiquitous in North Carolina and other states. One lawmaker described PFAS as “the DDT of our era.”

California Rep. Harley Rouda, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform Environment Subcommittee, opened the hearing by accusing companies of withholding information from the public.

DuPont and other companies have long known about the negative health effects of PFAS, which are used in everyday products such as microwave popcorn bags and nonstick pans, Rouda said. [Read more…]


6. The budget, the veto and Medicaid

Democratic Senator who initially supported the budget says it’s time for the GOP to negotiate

The political stand-off over whether to expand Medicaid is stretching the state budget stalemate deep into summer with no end in site. But this week Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) said she’s worried about how the gridlock could hurt the 1.6 million low-income North Carolinians already using Medicaid and undermine planned changes to the system.

The current Medicaid program in North Carolina is complex and expensive, with the federal government paying $2 to every $1 the state contributes to its $14 billion annual cost. But the way that system works is set to undergo a significant change in November. [Read more…]


7. Partisan gerrymandering trial to conclude today after Thursday bombshell

A two-week long trial about whether Republican lawmakers violated the constitution when they drew voting maps to maximize their partisan advantage will come to an end today.

The Wake County Superior Court three-judge panel likely won’t make a decision for a least a few weeks after hearing mostly complex testimony from expert witnesses that delved deep into the weeds of North Carolina redistricting.

The trial will continue at 9 a.m. today with another expert witness, this time called to testify on behalf of the intervenors in Common Cause v. Lewis.

John Branch, an attorney for the intervenors — a group of Republican voters — commenced a direct examination of Michael Barber, an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University, late Thursday afternoon. [Read more…]

Bonus reads:
Did Hofeller draw NC maps before redistricting process? Judges throw out expert testimony showing he didn’t


8. After “A Decade Without a Raise” workers, elected officials call for raising minimum wage

Dayosha Davis works in fast food, lives in public housing in Durham and struggles to provide for her two children.

Child care starts at $250 a week, she said, which is difficult to afford on the $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

“Last year I enrolled my daughter in pre-school,” Davis said. “And I had to take her out of pre-school because I couldn’t continue to pay for her education, even with help from my mother. It was a hard pill to swallow.”

Wednesday marked 10 years since North Carolina last raised the minimum wage — from $6.55 to $7.25 per hour. [Read more…]


9. Listen to our latest radio interviews and micro-podcasts


10. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

Courts & the Law, News

Did Hofeller draw NC maps before redistricting process? Judges throw out expert testimony showing he didn’t

A three-judge panel threw out expert testimony Thursday from Douglas Johnson, a witness for the legislative defendants in North Carolina’s partisan gerrymandering trial. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

In a bombshell decision, a three-judge panel threw out testimony Thursday from an expert witness for GOP lawmakers in North Carolina’s partisan gerrymandering case, and it could have federal implications.

Douglas Johnson, a research fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government in Claremont, Calif., testified that deceased GOP mapmaker Thomas Hofeller’s draft 2017 legislative maps were dramatically different than the maps that lawmakers ultimately enacted.

He was trying to prove that Hofeller hadn’t drawn the majority of the state’s 2017 legislative maps before the public redistricting process took place, a conclusion one of the plaintiffs’ experts presented to the court in the Common Cause v. Lewis trial.

Johnson admitted though, during cross examination, that his research was inaccurate. In the data he used to show big changes to the enacted House map from the draft Hofeller map, he omitted 11 districts in his report that showed almost 100 percent overlap between the two maps. In some instances, he would include districts with low overlap percentages in one county grouping, but not the districts in that same grouping that had a high overlap percentage.

In a similar analysis to maps produced by Common Cause North Carolina, though, Johnson included some of those high overlap districts.

When confronted with the inaccuracies during his cross examination, Johnson could not say what happened. He said he had been working late and had possibly made some coding errors.

“Sitting here today, you cannot tell the court your numbers are correct?” asked Daniel Jacobson, an attorney for the plaintiffs who cross examined Johnson.

Johnson responded, “I can tell you the idea is true.”

His inaccuracies produced overall percentages that showed Hofeller’s draft maps were more similar to the Common Cause maps than they were to the enacted maps.

That finding has been key to many of the legislative defendants’ court filings and has served as a line Republican lawmakers use when talking about the Hofeller files to the press.

Jacobson displayed during cross examination a News & Observer newspaper article quoting Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger making the same claim. Johnson confirmed that he provided the information to Berger’s office and that it was based on his flawed analysis.

“I probably owe Ryan an apology,” he said on the stand.

Johnson also admitted during the cross examination that his findings that Hofeller moved a large percentage of people around in the enacted 2017 legislative map compared to his draft map was based on unweighted population calculations that should have been weighted. That error ultimately produced another unreliable statistic.

Daniel Jacobson, an attorney for the plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Lewis, cross examined an expert witness Thursday for the legislative defendants. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Jacobson asked the court to strike all of Johnson’s testimony from his direct examination because of his inaccurate calculations.

“Incorrect numbers can’t possibly go to weight [of this case],” he argued. “They’re just wrong.”

Patrick Lewis, an attorney for the legislative defendants, told the court that if there were some calculation errors, they don’t require a full-scale striking of Johnson’s testimony. He tried to argue for the experts’ findings regarding the Senate to stay in.

The three-judge panel returned to their chambers to consider the arguments and ultimately decided to strike all of Johnson’s testimony comparing Hofeller’s draft 2017 legislative maps to the enacted maps. They also struck testimony comparing Hofeller’s maps to the Common Cause maps.

Johnson has been the only expert the legislative defendants’ have presented thus far in the Common Cause trial who has rebutted the findings that Hofeller drew most of the 2017 enacted maps before the redistricting process.

If that finding remains at the conclusion of the trial, it could open a pathway back to the federal court. The legislative defendants convinced the federal district court in North Carolina v. Covington, a racial gerrymandering case, not to order special elections under new remedial maps in 2017.

They made repeated statements that they had not yet started drawing new districts and needed sufficient time to develop criteria, draft the plans and receive public input.

Legislative leaders didn’t approve a contract with Hofeller until the very end of June 2017, and the joint redistricting committee tasked with remedially drawing new maps didn’t even meet publicly for the first time until July 26 the same year. Hofeller’s digital files — which were turned over by his daughter after his death to the Common Cause plaintiffs — show that he had substantially completed drawing the 2017 legislative plans in June 2017, according to expert testimony.

The redistricting committee met Aug. 4 to discuss potential criteria to be used in drawing the new districts and held public comment during that meeting. Criteria for the mapmaking process was not adopted until August 10 and Hofeller wasn’t notified of it until the next day, according to a court filing from 2017 from the legislative defendants in Covington.

The Common Cause plaintiffs have already accused the legislative defendants of lying to the federal court. If proven, the federal court could sanction the legislative defendants in Covington.

The federal court in Covington ultimately obliged the legislature by not ordering a special election — despite noting in their ruling that they were prepared to. That meant the North Carolina Republican supermajority stayed in place for an extra year.

If the legislature is found to have lied to that court, it could also be important to a separate case in the state Court of Appeals, where the NAACP is challenging the Republican supermajority’s power to two constitutional amendments, one implementing a voter ID law and another implementing a tax cap.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R-Jones, Onslow) was called to testify in a state partisan gerrymandering trial Thursday. He walked back his prior support for redistricting reform. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

The legislative defendants in Common Cause put on two other witnesses Thursday. Senate majority leader Harry Brown (R-Jones, Onslow) testified that he represents his Democratic and Republican constituents and tries his hardest to work across party lines within the legislature.

He was questioned during cross examination about his support for redistricting reform when he was in the minority, but said he was just making a statement.

“We all knew at this point that this bill had no chance, that it would go nowhere,” he said of a 2007 redistricting reform measure.

The other witness, Trey Hood, is a professor of political science at the University of Georgia. He continues to offer expert testimony rebutting plaintiff expert findings that the 2017 legislative plans were partisan outliers. It’s not clear if he will testify about the difference between Hofeller’s draft maps and the enacted ones.

The trial is expected to conclude tomorrow. For live updates, follow reporter Melissa Boughton on Twitter.