Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

State Board of Elections: 9th congressional district investigation a top priority

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has named Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. as a person of interest in connection with the absentee ballot fraud investigation in the 9th congressional district.

Dowless worked for the campaign of Mark Harris, the Republican candidate for Congress whose race is at the center of the investigation. He appears to have personally turned in 592 of the approximately 1,300 total absentee ballots requested by investigators in Bladen County. Only 684 absentee ballots were actually cast, leading to questions about absentee ballot requests made on behalf of people who voted in person or claim never to have requested an absentee ballot.

The State Board said in a Friday news release that the ongoing investigation into voting irregularities and other alleged activities in the 9th congressional district is a top priority.

Four State Board investigators with law enforcement experience are working full-time on this matter. They are led by Chief Investigator Joan Fleming, who specialized in fraud investigations during her 26-year tenure as an FBI special agent. Numerous State Board employees are assisting from Raleigh.

The State Board has issued subpoenas for documents to Red Dome Group, the Mark Harris for Congress Committee and the James Atlas McVicker Committee. An evidentiary hearing will be scheduled as soon as possible, and State Board staff will send out a notice as soon as details are final.

The State Board office continues to post documents related to the investigation at the public portal on a rolling basis when production is unlikely to interfere with the investigation.

In 2016, this agency investigated absentee voting issues in Bladen County and held a public hearing on December 3 of that year. (Transcript here.) At that hearing, the State Board (three Republicans and two Democrats) voted unanimously to forward all information about the Bladen County irregularities to federal and state prosecutors. Since then, State Board investigators have provided to prosecutors detailed reports documenting issues raised during the hearing and additional information obtained through investigations by this agency.

In late October and early November of this year, after concerns surfaced about new, potentially criminal absentee ballot activities, the State Board mailed letters to about 2,000 voters in Bladen County who had requested absentee ballots for the general election.

The letter informed voters that records showed they had requested an absentee ballot and explained their rights pertaining to the absentee voting process. The letter also provided a hotline phone number for voters to call if they did not request a ballot or if anyone tried to take or fill out a ballot for them.

It was mailed as an attempt to deter perpetrators of any questionable absentee ballot activities going on in that county, as well as to encourage new sources to come forward in the investigation. The hotline received 10 calls in response to the mailing, and that evidence is being considered by investigators.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

U.S. Supreme Court considering NC partisan gerrymandering cases today

The U.S. Supreme Court is discussing partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina today.

The high court is taking up League of Women Voters of North Carolina v. Rucho and Rucho v. Common Cause in conference, a gerrymandering case in which a federal court has twice found North Carolina’s 2016 congressional redistricting plan to be unconstitutional. Justices will discuss the case and decide whether to schedule it for arguments this term, with an announcement possible as early as Monday morning.

The court has taken up partisan gerrymandering cases before, but it never has established a standard to outlaw the issue. North Carolina voting rights advocates think League of Women Voters and Common Cause could be the cases to change that (both cases were tried and decided together).

Plaintiffs in both cases have asked the high court to affirm the lower court’s second opinion striking the 2016 congressional map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

Read more about the two cases here and here.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Next stop for voter ID: the Governor’s office

A voter ID bill is on its way to Gov. Roy Cooper’s office after the Senate voted today to pass an updated House version.

Senate Democrats urged lawmakers ahead of the concurrence vote to pause voter ID efforts until after the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement’s investigation into midterm absentee ballot harvesting and destruction in the 9th congressional district.

Sen. Terry Van Duyn (D-Buncombe) also made a motion on the floor to table the vote on Senate Bill 824, the voter ID measure, until after the investigation.

“You promised the people of North Carolina that if they voted for voter ID that you would secure our elections,” she said, adding that a potential special election in the 9th congressional district still looms. “We simply cannot claim that we are addressing the real issue here.”

Republican Senators voted down her motion to table the vote. The overall bill passed 25-7 in a concurrence vote. It’s not yet known if Cooper will veto the bill.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

New Mecklenburg sheriff ends 287(g) immigration program

There’s a new sheriff in Mecklenburg County, and one of his first orders of business was ending the 287(g) program there, a partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that funds local law enforcement agencies to engage in federal immigration enforcement activities.

Sheriff Gary McFadden, the first Black sheriff to be elected in Mecklenburg, made the announcement Wednesday about ending the program. Since it began in 2006, the 287(g) agreement has led to the deportation of 15,000 Mecklenburg residents, according to the ACLU of North Carolina.

During the 2018 elections for sheriff in Mecklenburg and Wake counties, the ACLU invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a nonpartisan campaign to educate voters about the candidates’ positions on crucial civil rights issues, including the 287(g) program.

Voters responded by electing McFadden and new Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker, who both vowed during their campaigns to end 287(g) programs and voters elected them both.

“Voters made it clear that Mecklenburg County should not help fuel the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda, and we are glad to see the new sheriff hold himself to that promise,” said Karen Anderson, Executive Director of the ACLU of NC. “The 287(g) program encourages widespread racial profiling, diverts local law enforcement resources, and harms relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they serve. We applaud Sheriff McFadden’s quick action to implement a new model for safety and justice and will continue to work with our partners to ensure all collaboration between ICE and local law enforcement is ended in Mecklenburg.”

ACLU of NC spokesman Mike Meno said after Wake and Mecklenburg put an end to their 287(g) programs, there will only be four more counties with it in the state in Nash, Henderson, Cabarrus and Gaston.

Alamance County had applied to re-enter into a 287(g) agreement, but is considering instead entering into a separate agreement to hold ICE detainees.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

House Democrats propose a bill to expand NC voting rights

Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D-Pitt, Wilson) on Tuesday discussed a Democratic bill to expand voting rights in North Carolina. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

House Democrats introduced a bill Tuesday morning that would create an automatic and an online voter registration process in response to the measure implementing a voter ID requirement in the constitution.

“No one should be denied their right to vote,” said Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Durham, Orange) at a legislative press conference.

He and three other colleagues — Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D-Pitt, Wilson) and Rep. Joe John (D-Wake) — are the primary sponsors of House Bill 1115, the Let North Carolina Vote Act.

Part one of the bill creates a system for universal voter registration. Anyone who registers with a state agency for any purpose would also be automatically registered to vote — this would include any registration with the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Health and Human Services (public assistance, Medicaid/Medicare and unemployment) and public community colleges and universities.

Other parts of the measure allow for Election Day voter registration, require county boards of elections to provide voters with a free photo ID, creates a system for online voter registration and extends early voting.

“Don’t restrict voting; give people their proper voice,” Morey said at the press conference. “This bill that we’re proposing is to expand — give the basic rights to our citizens. … Don’t make this complicated; don’t disenfranchise voters — that is the intent on what the majority is doing. We are here to protect voter’s rights, to encourage voting and get everyone in the state a voice.”

The backdrop of this bill includes Senate lawmakers already passing Senate Bill 824, the voter ID measure, amid a GOP voting fraud scandal in the 9th congressional district, which is being investigated by the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

Still, Meyer said he didn’t expect GOP lawmakers to be accepting of the Let North Carolina Vote Act.

“We do not file this bill in anticipation of the Republicans seeing the light,” he said. “We file this as a way to show this is what Democrats would do, and should we take the majority at any point in the future, we would work on pushing these types of policies to make it possible for North Carolinians to vote.”

Farmer-Butterfield described the bill as a solution to voter ID that would be in the best interest of all parties involved and the constituents of North Carolina.