Elections watchdog calls for criminal investigation of NCGOP over baseless voter fraud claims

Elections watchdog calls for criminal investigation of NCGOP over baseless voter fraud claims

Carol Turner hadn’t lived in North Carolina long before last November’s election. A retired nurse, she had recently moved from Maryland with her son Mark, a Naval officer, and his wife to help take care of their baby.

But Turner had done everything necessary to vote here in the general election.

“I consider myself a very responsible citizen,” said Turner, 65. “Voting to me is a right as well as a privilege. I believe in being responsible about it. So after I voted in the primary in Maryland, I made sure to contact them and let them know I would be registering and voting in North Carolina in the general.”

Having been so careful, Turner was furious to find she was one of about 600 voters the North Carolina Republican party was accused of voting improperly in the wake of the election. About 95 percent of those accused voters were found to have cast their votes legally. But that didn’t stop them from being libeled in a political effort to manufacture a massive voter fraud problem, Turner said.

“It was a totally baseless accusation just because I had voted in the primary in one state and the general election in another,” Turner said. “And there were a lot of people like me. The people who did this didn’t feel like they needed evidence, they just made this accusation and harmed my reputation and my name without even doing their research.”

A new report released this week by voting rights group Democracy NC delves into the GOP effort to contest Pat McCrory’s loss in the gubernatorial race. Based on its results, the group is calling for a state and federal criminal investigation into the false voter fraud claims.

Back in November, McCrory narrowly lost to Democratic opponent Roy Cooper. McCrory refused to concede on election night. Instead, he spent four weeks alleging massive fraud in a manner that mirrored baseless accusations of massive voter fraud by then President-elect Donald Trump. McCrory’s campaign and the North Carolina Republican party recruited local Republican officials and voters to lodge protests alleging everything from felons voting illegally and people voting in multiple states to mishandling of ballots.

Ironically, in accusing more than half the state’s election boards of missing voter irregularities and fraud, McCrory wound up smearing his own party’s appointees. Republican dominated election boards across the state rejected his team’s protests, as did the State Board of Elections with its GOP majority.

That prevented the election from being decided by the General Assembly, which can happen under state law if enough doubt exists as to the conduct of the election. Given the lack of evidence of actual widespread voter fraud and Cooper’s lead climbing above 10,000 ballots, even GOP state lawmakers didn’t want to get into the election fight.

“I think the fair minded Republican elected officials deserve credit for that,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy NC. “The election boards, which were majority Republican, said no. And I think for the most part the local Republicans who actually signed those protests were pawns in a bigger game.”

Democracy NC’s report throws a light on that bigger game.

The Moore County protest, which included false accusations against Turner, was signed by John Rowerdink, who was then chair of the Moore County Republican Party. Rowderink, who later withdrew the protest for lack of evidence, told Democracy NC he did so to support McCrory but evidence to back up the claims never materialized.

“It sounded credible and I wanted to support the governor’s campaign and didn’t want fraud to occur,” Rowderink said.  He had “no problem with filing it,” but he said he withdrew the protest at the preliminary hearing because “the legal team never provided evidence to support the claims.” He said he had an email exchange with McCrory’s team before the hearing, trying to get something to back up the protest. “They were not very responsive,” he said. “They left me hanging.”

Rowderink said he doesn’t regret making the protest. People like Turner were falsely accused, but he pointed out that one voter was found to have voted twice.

Hall said Democracy NC sat down with the State Board of Elections last month to talk about the weaknesses in the process for filing protests.

“It makes it easy for them to use this tool politically, because there are no consequences for doing it,” Hall said. “A person doesn’t even have to attest that the statement they are providing is true to the best of their knowledge. They don’t have to provide any evidence.”

Anne and William Hughes, a retired couple from Pinehurst, were also falsely accused. Like Turner, they had recently moved to North Carolina and so had voted in the primary in another state. When they found out they had been publicly accused of illegally voting, they were shocked and angry.

“I couldn’t believe that they could just do something like that with no evidence,” Anne Hughes said. “We’d only been here a short time. It’s not the way you want to be introduced to the state. It was in three newspapers. That was a shock too.”

This week the state board released a statement saying they’re taking steps to improve the process and prevent baseless accusations.

William Hughes said he has been impressed with the State Board of Elections’ staff’s commitment to improving the process.

“I think they’re going to make changes so that there has to be some sort of meat on the bones of an accusation like this,” Hughes said. “They need to be able to say, ‘Okay, if you’re going to make an accusation, what proof do you have?’”

N.C. GOP Chairman Robin Hayes blasted Democracy NC in a statement Tuesday, calling their report and calls for an investigation “nothing short of voter and citizen intimidation.”

“Citizens have rights, as prescribed by law, to make inquiries about potential voting irregularities,” Hayes said in the statement. “It is a disgusting attempt to bully everyday citizens out of their right to provide a check on our electoral system. As the report notes, instances of improper voting were found and proven.”

Hall said Hayes is missing the point.

“We’re not saying there are no cases of illegal voting or that none of them are cases of people trying to cheat,” Hall said. “But to say it’s as widespread as they suggest is just crazy.”

“They need to recognize that what we’re complaining about is the political use of voter fraud charges, its use as a political weapon,” Hall said. “It’s something that has gone on nationally and North Carolina is ground zero for seeing how it’s played out and the human casualties when it’s used this way.”

About the author

Joe Killian, Investigative Reporter, joined N.C. Policy Watch in August of 2016. His work takes a closer look at government, politics and policy in North Carolina and their impact on the lives of everyday people. Before joining Policy Watch, Joe spent a decade at the News & Record in Greensboro, reporting on everything from cops and courts to higher education. He covered the city councils of High Point and Greensboro and the Guilford County Board of Commissioners before becoming the paper’s full-time government and politics reporter. His work has also appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal, Go Triad, the Bristol Press in Bristol, Conn., and the Cape Cod Times in Hyannis, Mass.
joek@ncpolicywatch.com
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