This weekend: Going “Deeper into Democracy” in NC elections

Electoral maps. Court decisions. Economic insecurity. Misinformation and disinformation.

With the midterm elections looming, North Carolina voters have a lot to think about.

This weekend in Greensboro, Policy Watch’s Lynn Bonner and political scientist Chris Cooper will parse those issues in a wide-ranging public conversation.

The free event, Deeper into Democracy: Voting & Elections in NC Today, will be held at the Greensboro History Museum Sunday, October 2 at 3 p.m.

Cooper, a Political Science professor and director of the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University, is editor and co-author of The New Politics of North Carolina and The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People. He’s also a regular contributor to the popular Old North State Politics blog.

Bonner is an award-winning veteran political reporter who spent 26 years at The News & Observer before joining Policy Watch in 2020. In her recent work, she has extensively examined election issues from political disinformation and electoral maps  to the fight over voter ID.

The Deeper into Democracy series supports NC Democracy: Eleven Elections, an exhibit exploring choices and change across 11 state elections between 1776 and 2010. The exhibit illustrates the who could participate in N.C. elections, how voters cast their ballots, and what influenced decisions that continue to shape what democracy means today.

More info on Sunday’s event can be found here.

More on the NC Democracy: Eleven Elections exhibit here.

U.S. House panels probe election disinformation in Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Texas

Pope-funded “libertarian” group continues slide toward Trumpism

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

For decades, groups funded by conservative mega-donor and one-time Republican politician Art Pope have proudly brandished the “libertarian” label when describing the philosophy they bring to public policy debates. This has been particularly true of the biggest such organization — the John Locke Foundation — a 30+ year-old nonprofit “think tank” that has principally championed “free markets,” tax cuts, and “small government” while largely steering clear of issues like racial justice, LGBTQ equality and reproductive rights.

To the group’s credit, Locke Foundation staffers once loudly endorsed the establishment of an independent redistricting commission in North Carolina (a position they’ve since abandoned) and have long spoken out against efforts to bestow economic development incentives on private businesses, even when it’s been Republican politicians doing the bestowing.

In 2016, longtime Locke President John Hood publicly described Donald Trump as “a contemptible human being.”

Since the advent of Trumpism as the dominant force in modern American conservative politics, however, there’s been an obvious and worrisome shift at Locke. Maybe it was Hood’s departure from day-to-day leadership or the addition of the Civitas Institute — a Pope-funded nonprofit that it absorbed in recent years and that had long taken a more aggressively right-wing stance on a variety of issues (like immigration and “election integrity”) that Locke largely ignored — but whatever the explanation, it’s clear that things have changed.

The new and disturbingly Trumpist Locke Foundation has been increasingly on display of late in several arenas — including the pandemic, where its staffers have repeatedly published absurd screeds attacking basic public health policies and, more recently, in its willingness to advance Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

For a classic example of how this latter bit of nonsense has been seeping into Locke content, check out the group’s recent release surrounding a poll it conducted on the Republican U.S. Senate primary. While the poll itself has some interesting findings and, by all indications, some validity, check out this excerpt from the release itself:

Republicans will make their Senate choice at a time when nine out of 10 believe the country is on the wrong track, and eight out of 10 disapprove of the job Congress is doing. The poll shows they also have grave concerns about the integrity of elections. Nearly half – 49% – do not believe the 2022 general election will be free and fair. Thirty-one percent are unsure.

[Locke President and organizational #2 Donald] Bryson continued, “It’s not an understatement to say that the underpinnings of the American republic are at a flashpoint. When a near-majority of one of the major parties doesn’t believe in the integrity of our elections, then the public will question the legitimacy of any outcome. The Left will say this is a result of the Big Lie, but remember that the first ‘big lie’ was a 2016 Clinton campaign fabrication about Russian collusion that led to impeachment hearings designed to overthrow a duly elected president. The blame lies at the feet of the Left, and specifically attorney Marc Elias.” (Emphasis supplied).

You got that? The group that has long held itself out as one of our state’s leading conservative voices and defenders of “freedom” is now suggesting that the blame for the widespread skepticism about U.S. elections that has spread like a deadly virus amongst American conservatives is not the fault of the contemptible liar who sullied the office of the presidency from 2017 to 2021, but that of a Democratic lawyer of whom most people have never heard.

You really can’t make this stuff up.

As yesterday’s “Monday numbers” column reiterated for the umpteenth time, the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election has been confirmed and reconfirmed scores of times. To imply, as the Locke statement does, that there is any validity to Donald Trump’s unhinged claims about that election is either a) a knowing and remarkably cynical exercise in feeding the paranoia of its readers, or b) an indication that the Locke Foundation has abandoned all past pretenses and as become a mere mouthpiece for the Trumpist authoritarianism that now threatens our democracy.

Either way, it’s a very sad state of affairs.

N.C. legislators rush bill to limit nonprofit donor disclosure

Image: AdobeStock

North Carolina House Republicans rushed to pass a “donor privacy” bill Thursday shortly after a Judiciary Committee hearing. The bill (SB 636) would limit the disclosure required for a range of 501(c) nonprofit organizations. It is now up to Gov. Roy Cooper to decide whether to sign it into law.

The bill would prohibit nonprofits from disclosing the list of donors without the donors’ permission, unless otherwise required by law, such as investigations by state agencies including the State Board of Elections.

Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Burke County Republican, said the bill seeks to protect donors’ First Amendment rights. He said, “This is designed to say that if you are a donor to a charitable organization, unless you give your permission, you don’t have to worry that someone is going to disclose your name broadly to other folks who may have other purposes in mind than just being well informed.”

He said legislators proposed this bill in keeping with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that blocked the California Attorney General’s office from collecting the nonprofit Americans for Prosperity’s tax forms containing donor information. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented in the case, saying the court erroneously eliminated the burden of proof to show First Amendment violations and instead invalidated the disclosure law entirely.

Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, opposed today’s House action. “We talked about free speech; We talked about free assembly. That’s not what we’re talking about here,” she said. ”We’re talking about money… money that has power to influence and oftentimes money that has power to corrupt.”

This bill would prevent the public from identifying big donors to nonprofit organizations and perpetuate secrecy in campaign finance, opponents of the bill argued.

Although the bill would not affect disclosure requirements for nonprofits to the SBOE, campaign finance watchdog groups said that the measure would expand a loophole already in the state statutes. Currently, dark money groups can funnel their money through layers of shell organizations. Since secondary disclosure of donors is not required, it is sometimes impossible to trace back the source donors.

Melissa Price Kromm

A preemptive strike

Melissa Price Kromm, executive director of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections, said the bill is nothing but a “preemptive strike” to prevent disclosure of donors if state laws close the loophole to allow for “peeling the onion” to identify sources of dark money.

“You don’t have the public clamoring for this, you have special interest clamoring for this,” Kromm said. She said the sudden passage of the bill without public notice is telling of lobbying groups’ influence. North Carolina Republican legislators recently returned from the annual conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The conservative group famous for pre-written “model legislation” has pushed for similar bills in other states for years.

Rep. Blackwell was a member of ALEC’s Civil Justice Task Force, according to a memo.

The bill would apply to different kinds of nonprofits, including 501(c)(3) charitable, religious, and education organizations and 501 (c)(6) trade associations. However, Kromm said the bill would close the door to transparency for 501(c)(4) organizations, social welfare groups that often play an active role in campaign activities.

In an earlier op-ed to Policy Watch, she highlighted notable 501(c)(4) groups have abused the funneling loophole, including the National Rifle Association, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, and Democratic-afiliated groups Future Forward, as well as the 1630 Fund.

On the House floor, Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, proposed an amendment to limit the donor protection to 501(c)(3) charitable, religious and education organizations only. The amendment failed to gain Republican support.

The Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based nonpartisan nonprofit organization, sent a  letter to Gov. Cooper urging him to veto the bill. The letter warned, “The bill mandates secrecy for 29 different types of nonprofit organizations.”

“While not barring current statutorily required disclosures, S.B. 636 stymies further disclosure of donor information from groups that hide their political spending in dark money shell games to avoid the reach of such statutorily required disclosures,” the letter read.

The group noted that the bill would also make it easier for North Carolina officials to hide conflicts of interest. For example, the bill could keep it in the dark when legislators solicit money from individuals associated with nonprofits who wish to buy government action in secret, the letter stated.

The group noted that former Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder vetoed a similar version of the bill and called it “a solution in search of a problem.”

Care about the integrity of the vote? Make time to read this op-ed.

This week’s must read editorial comes from Professor Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, in Friday’s New York Times.

Hasen, the author of several books about elections and democracy, warns about ‘a new and more dangerous front in the voting wars.’ Here’s an excerpt from his column:

Professor Richard Hasen

We already know the contours of the battle over voter suppression. The public has been inundated with stories about Georgia’s new voting law, from Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the All-Star Game from Atlanta to criticism of new restrictions that prevent giving water to people waiting in long lines to vote. With lawsuits already filed against restrictive aspects of that law and with American companies and elite law firms lined up against Republican state efforts to make it harder to register and vote, there’s at least a fighting chance that the worst of these measures will be defeated or weakened.

The new threat of election subversion is even more concerning. These efforts target both personnel and policy; it is not clear if they are coordinated. They nonetheless represent a huge threat to American democracy itself.

Some of these efforts involve removing from power those who stood up to President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The Georgia law removes the secretary of state from decision-making power on the state election board. This seems aimed clearly at Georgia’s current Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, punishing him for rejecting Mr. Trump’s entreaties to “find” 11,780 votes to flip Joe Biden’s lead in the state.

But the changes will apply to Mr. Raffensperger’s successor, too, giving the legislature a greater hand in who counts votes and how they are counted. Michigan’s Republican Party refused to renominate Aaron Van Langevelde to the state’s canvassing board. Mr. Van Langevelde voted with Democrats to accept Michigan’s Electoral College vote for Mr. Biden as legitimate. He was replaced by Tony Daunt, the executive director of a conservative Michigan foundation that is financially backed by the DeVos family.

Even those who have not been stripped of power have been censured by Republican Party organizations, including not just Mr. Raffensperger and Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, but also Barbara Cegavske, the Republican secretary of state of Nevada who ran a fair election and rejected spurious arguments that the election was stolen. The message that these actions send to politicians is that if you want a future in state Republican politics, you had better be willing to manipulate election results or lie about election fraud.

Republican state legislatures have also passed or are considering laws aimed at stripping Democratic counties of the power to run fair elections. The new Georgia law gives the legislature the power to handpick an election official who could vote on the state election board for a temporary takeover of up to four county election boards during the crucial period of administering an election and counting votes. That provision appears to be aimed at Democratic counties like Fulton County that have increased voter access. A new Iowa law threatens criminal penalties against local election officials who enact emergency election rules and bars them from sending voters unsolicited absentee ballot applications.

So what can be done? To begin with, every jurisdiction in the United States should be voting with systems that produce a paper ballot that can be recounted in the event of a disputed election. Having physical, tangible evidence of voters’ choices, rather than just records on electronic voting machines, is essential to both guard against actual manipulation and protect voter confidence in a fair vote count. Such a provision is already contained in H.R. 1, the mammoth Democrat-sponsored voting bill.

Next, businesses and civic leaders must speak out not just against voter suppression but also at efforts at election subversion. The message needs to be that fair elections require not just voter access to the polls but also procedures to ensure that the means of conducting the election are fair, auditable and verifiable by representatives of both political parties and nongovernmental organizations.

Congress must also fix the rules for counting Electoral College votes, so that spurious objections to the vote counts like the ones we saw on Jan. 6 from senators and representatives, including Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, are harder to make. It should take much more than a pairing of a single senator and a single representative to raise an objection, and there must be quick means to reject frivolous objections to votes fairly cast and counted in the states.

Congress can also require states to impose basic safeguards in the counting of votes in federal elections. This is not part of the H.R. 1 election reform bill, but it should be, and Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution gives Congress wide berth to override state laws in this area.

Finally, we need a national effort to support those who will count votes fairly. Already we are seeing a flood of competent election administrators retiring from their often-thankless jobs, some after facing threats of violence during the 2020 vote count. Local election administrators need political cover and the equivalent of combat pay, along with adequate budget resources to run fair elections. It took hundreds of millions of dollars in private philanthropy to hold a successful election in 2020; that need for charity should not be repeated.

If someone running for secretary of state endorses the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen, they should be uniformly condemned. Support should go to those who promote election integrity, regardless of party, and who put in place fair and transparent procedures. Ultimately, we need to move toward a more nonpartisan administration of elections and create incentives for loyalty to the integrity of the democratic process, not to a political party.

We may not know until January 2025, when Congress has counted the Electoral College votes of the states, whether those who support election integrity and the rule of law succeeded in preventing election subversion. That may seem far away, but the time to act to prevent a democratic crisis is now. It may begin with lawsuits against new voter-suppression laws and nascent efforts to enshrine the right to vote in the Constitution. But it is also going to require a cross-partisan alliance of those committed to the rule of law — in and out of government — to ensure that our elections continue to reflect the will of the people.

Read the full op-ed here in The New York Times.

Professor Richard Hasen is also the author of “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy.”