News, Voting

Voters falsely accused of fraud share stories, ask State Board of Elections for change

North Carolinians in 16 counties who were falsely accused of voter fraud last year by former Gov. Pat McCrory’s Campaign have asked the State Board of Elections to change its protest process.

When McCrory was losing the election last year, GOP lawyers recruited residents to file election protests against individuals accused of voting with a felony, voting in a deceased person’s name or voting in multiple states.

At least 85 voters were falsely accused and four are currently involved in a defamation lawsuit against the people who signed their protests.

Other voters who were falsely accused shared their stories with the Elections Board in a telephone conference Monday that was facilitated by the voting rights organization, Democracy North Carolina.

“I was literally shocked,” Betty B. Adams told Kim Strach, executive director of the Elections Board. “I was upset for several days.”

Joseph Golden described to Strach his surprise and frustration after seeing his name appear in Brunswick County newspapers and after reading someone’s social media post, “There’s a cheater amongst us.”

Anne Hughes of Moore County told Strach that she was “just incredulous” when she learned that she and her husband had been accused of voting in two states.

“I was shocked and horrified and furious to learn our name was on a list with people who were alleged to have broken a federal law,” she said.

Aysha Nasir of Orange County added, “You obey the law, you do all the stuff you’re supposed to, and then some person just randomly, without any burden of proof, can accuse you of breaking the law.”

Those voters and others presented Strach with a letter calling on the Elections Board to “(1) change the form for filing a protest complaint so it requires a presentation of evidence to support an allegation; and (2) create a process to hold accountable anyone who files a frivolous or negligent complaint or a pattern of repeated false complaints.”

You can read the full letter here.

You can listen part of the conference call where voters shared their shock and outrage over being falsely accused of voter fraud here.

Strach told the group that she appreciated hearing their statements, calling them “very powerful.” She said her staff was already working on possible revisions for the protest form and process, and she anticipated taking several recommendations to the five-member State Board of Elections at its next meeting.

One change she mentioned would require the protester to swear under penalty of perjury that the information in the form is true.

Bob Hall with Democracy NC said the organization is conducting a county-by-county investigation of the protests and their impact on innocent voters.

“Unfortunately, North Carolina is ground zero for witnessing the damage inflicted on honest voters and the elections system by inflated or bogus claims of voter fraud,” Hall said. “The testimony of the voters shows the real pain and harm caused by these irresponsible claims. Their stories also show that anybody can suddenly find themselves charged with a crime when voter fraud accusations are used as a political weapon.”

Courts & the Law, News, Voting

North Carolina residents accused of illegally voting in 2016 election file defamation lawsuit

"Vote" pin

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Four Guilford County voters have filed a defamation lawsuit against the person who accused them of voter fraud in the November election.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice reports that at least 85 North Carolinian’s were accused of voting in multiple states or of being ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction. None of the accusations were found to be valid.

Unsupported claims by President Donald Trump have moved the issue of illegal voting into the national spotlight but the national rhetoric has been broad and vague, a release from the organization states. North Carolina voters were called out by name and were publicly accused of committing a crime.

“Today voters are fighting back,” said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney at SCSJ. “We want to send the message loud and clear that it is wrong to intimidate voters by accusing them of committing a crime without having any evidence to support the claim.”

When former Gov. Pat McCrory was losing in the last election, his campaign began shouting claims of voter fraud across the state. GOP lawyers recruited residents from 52 of North Carolina’s 100 counties to file election protests against individuals accused of voting with a felony, voting in a deceased person’s name or voting in multiple states.

William Clark Porter IV, who is named as the defendant in the lawsuit, could not be reached for comment. Porter is committee chairman of the Guilford County Republican Party.

He accused nine voters of casting ballots in another state, eight of voting with felony convictions and said one deceased person voted.

Karen Niehans, 74, and her husband Sam Niehans, plaintiffs in the lawsuit, were both accused of voting in two states. They moved to Jamestown in 2016 to be closer to family and both of the claims against them were found to be without merit.

“This was personal,” Karen Niehans said. “My democratic right to vote was challenged. It’s as if someone was saying that I was less than others, that my voice shouldn’t count. That’s just plain wrong to do to someone and I am not going to take it. I want to make sure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Louis Bouvier of Greensboro was also accused of voting in two states. Unlike the Niehans, Bouvier has voted in North Carolina consistently since 1988.

“My son and I share a name. That’s likely why someone accused me of voting in two states,” Bouvier said. “But it’s a sorry state of affairs when someone can accuse you of a crime without properly vetting or researching the facts.”

Gabriel Thabet of Greensboro, another plaintiff, was accused of not being allowed to vote due to a felony conviction from 19 years ago. However, North Carolinians with a felony record have their rights automatically restored after they have served their sentence and completed parole.

His vote was ultimately counted.

“I have spent the last 19 years trying to forget the mistakes that I made as a kid,” Thabet said. “I wish that I had never been accused of not being allowed to vote. Just as I had to learn from my childhood mistakes, I cannot change the past but I can help shape the future. I am standing up to make sure other people are not intimidated the way I was.”

In 2013, North Carolina passed a monster voter suppression law. Although the law was struck down by the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, state legislators used similar baseless claims to cast doubt over the elections process to build support for passing the measure, according to SCSJ.

There are concerns that the unsupported challenges to voters in 2016 will be used for the same purpose.

“This case is about protecting the rights of every eligible voter to be able to cast their ballot without being intimidated or having to face baseless accusations,” Riggs said. “Voters are pushing back against vague and unfounded claims of voter fraud being used to drum up support for voter suppression laws. Today is the day that voters fight back.”

News, Voting

PhD candidate tells story of voter fraud accusation in NC governor’s race

Brooks Sterritt found out he was accused of voter fraud in the most recent election via a Google Alert. The PhD candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago wrote about his experience and what it taught me about belonging and exclusion in America for New Republic.

His name had appeared in the digital edition of his hometown’s daily newspaper. The article stated that the chairman of the Republican Party in Pasquotank County, where he had voted by mail-in absentee ballot, was attempting to invalidate Sterritt’s and 21 others by challenging their residency.

Sterritt was one of many people accused by Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign of voter fraud. At the time he learned of the accusation, McCrory hadn’t yet conceded the election.

I initially found the challenge quite odd. I wasn’t a felon, hadn’t voted in another state, and hadn’t attempted to vote in someone else’s name. The GOP chairman behind the local challenge, Richard Gilbert, filed what is technically called an elections protest petition disputing my residency in the county. It’s true, I don’t reside in Pasquotank County. I voted by absentee ballot, something one does, by definition, when absent.

I’ve been a registered voter since 2002, and voted absentee while in college in North Carolina, in graduate school in Boston, while studying and teaching in a foreign country, and most recently while pursuing a doctorate in Chicago. I voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries while teaching English in Rövershagen, Germany. I used the event for a unit on the American political process (the witnesses who signed my ballot weren’t even U.S. citizens). Indeed, the same principle allows members of the military to vote from overseas. Regardless of where one temporarily resides, a voter can legally cast a ballot using the address of their domicile, defined in part and somewhat poetically as the place “to which…that person has the intention of returning.”

Sterritt goes on in the piece to talk about his argument and tries to describe the basis for which he claims Pasquotank County as home.

Consider the weight of the combination “born and raised.” There’s an elemental edge to the phrase, as though it refers to something that came out of the ground. But merely being born somewhere, in and of itself, does little to change your lived experience going forward. Though my father was born in Canada, he never considered it his home. This is because his parents (U.S. citizens) returned with him to Upstate New York while he was still very young. Where I was born, where I grew up, where my parents live, where I lived for the longest period, where landmarks trigger the oldest memories: phrases that refer to the same place. If my parents moved to Big Arm, Montana, would I consider it my home? Doubtful. I wonder about other tipping points, however. I lived in one town for 18 years, and the latter 12 of those were in the same house. If I had instead lived in three towns for six years each, which would feel most like home?

Taken to extremes, the emphasis on origin, nativeness, “those who belong” leads to the converse: an emphasis on outsiders, strangers, foreign bodies, infectious agents. It’s no coincidence that the language of this most recent challenge to voter eligibility in Pasquotank County contains phrases like “symptom of voter fraud” and again, however redundantly, “symptom of a systemic infection of voter fraud.” Compare the president-elect’s words on illegal immigration: “Infectious disease” is “pouring across the border.” Consider the words of Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s pick for national security advisor: “Islam is a political ideology. … It’s like a malignant cancer.”

Republicans, in their current form, are a party so desperate to win they are increasingly turning to voter suppression, partisan redistricting, and appeals to fear of the other. These and other efforts have only increased my desire to vote in North Carolina, and many share this view. The hard work of organizing as well as continuing demographic changes make it more likely North Carolina will be known as a progressive (though imperfect) southern state rather than the state that repealed the Racial Justice Act and introduced HB2. On December 15, the state board of elections, which had assumed jurisdiction over the challenge to my voter eligibility, voted unanimously to dismiss the challenge. I look forward to voting in North Carolina’s federally ordered special election in 2017.

Courts & the Law, Legislature, News, Special Session, Voting

Senate Bill 4 touted as bipartisan effort; Democrats told special session not the right time to amend

Republican Senators touted their bipartisan effort bill Thursday morning as a way for both parties to work together, but brushed off Democrat Senators’ requests to add an amendment to create a bipartisan redistricting committee.

Senate Bill 4 is a complex, four-part, 25-page document that was introduced late Wednesday during the General Assembly’s fourth special session of the year. It seeks to:

  • Create a new, bipartisan agency: the Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement that consolidates elections, campaign finance, lobbying and ethics.
  • Reestablish partisan elections for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
  • Modify the appellate court process.
  • Allow outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory to fill a vacancy on the Industrial Commission.

The bill was discussed at a nearly two-hour committee meeting Thursday. Democrats didn’t oppose the bill in its entirety and seemed to like the idea of a bipartisan Board of Elections, but expressed concern about the timing of the bill and said they would prefer to work on it in the long session.

Sen. Floyd B. McKissick Jr., D-Durham, Granville, said the independent Board of Elections had been around a long time and it appeared the only reason to move on the bill now was political in nature, to take away an opportunity for incoming Gov.-elect Roy Cooper. He also asked why there wasn’t anything in the bill about bipartisan redistricting after Sen. Tommy Tucker (R-Union) told the group the bill would be one step toward that goal.

“You don’t eat a steak in one bite,” Tucker replied, adding that he wouldn’t have objections to working on something regarding bipartisan redistricting in the future but that there wasn’t enough time in the special session to do so.

Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Bertie, Chowan, Edgecombe, Hertford, Martin, Northampton, Terrell and Washington, asked to introduce an amendment to add a bipartisan redistricting committee. Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, asked her to wait until later. She did, and the amendment was promptly voted against with little discussion.

“This would not be the appropriate time for this particular amendment,” Rucho said.

The group also discussed the other parts of Senate Bill 4, with Democrats again questioning the timing of it all, and Republicans insisting there were good reasons behind everything.

“There is no other time to run this,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford and Yancey. “It’s a great piece of legislation and I think people are just grasping at straws to see what the opposition is.”

Sen. Jane Smith, D-Columbus and Robeson, said the legislation seemed drastic to pass in such a short amount of time, and that she was concerned this was all being done in a special session that all legislators were not even aware was going to happen.

McKissick told Republicans that if there was more willingness to work together, as opposed to having been excluded from the process to begin with, there may be a different tone moving forward.

The bill moved forward to the Senate Finance Committee, where it is currently being discussed. There is no fiscal note attached to the bill, so it is unclear how much it would cost taxpayers. A fiscal note was requested at the finance meeting, but Senators said they would not hold up the bill if the note was not available in time.

Courts & the Law, News, Voting

Same court that struck down NC voter ID law upholds Virginia’s, notes difference in case facts

The same court that struck down North Carolina’s voter identification law just months ago ruled Tuesday to uphold Virginia’s law, though it is noted in the court document that the facts of the cases “are in no way” alike.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit of Appeals ruled in Lee v. Virginia Board of Elections that Virginia’s law does not place an undue burden on minority voting and there was no evidence to suggest racially discriminatory intent in the law’s enactment.

Virginia has required voters to present identification in all elections since 1996, but until 2012, residents without an ID could still vote if they signed a document affirming their identity. Eventually, legislation was passed by the Republican-led General Assembly to require a photo ID from all voters.

Anyone without a photo ID can cast a provisional ballot to be cured within a few days with a proper ID.

While noting that Virginia’s law in question added another layer of inconvenience to the voting process, judges said it affected all voters equally. On the argument that the legislature intentionally discriminated on the basis of race and age by passing the law, “the court found that the evidence failed ‘to show any departure from normal legislative procedures.'”

In its conclusion, the court said its decision is not sweeping of all election rules that result in a disparity in the convenience of voting.

As we noted in North Carolina State Conference of NAACP v. McCrory, 831 F.3d 204, 241 (4th Cir. 2016), “it cannot be that states must forever tip-toe around certain voting provisions” that would have more effect on the voting patterns of one group than another. Rather, [this case] asks us to evaluate whether the Virginia process has diminished the opportunity of the protected class to participate in the electoral process. If Virginia had required voters to present identifications without accommodating citizens who lacked them, the rule might arguably deprive some voters of an equal opportunity to vote. But where, as here, Virginia allows everyone to vote and provides free photo IDs to persons without them, we conclude that SB 1256 provides every voter an equal opportunity to vote and thus does not violate § 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

In contrast to the Virginia case, the Court of Appeals that struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law “concluded that, based on the totality of circumstances, the North Carolina process targeted black voters with ‘almost surgical precision.'” You can read more about that decision here.