Raleigh, N.C. — During a discussion of voter fraud during this week's episode of WRAL News' "On the Record," Francis De Luca of the conservative Civitas Institute cited a statistic to highlight the potential that some number of people in North Carolina may have wrongfully voted.
"Since this election, tens of thousands of people have not been verified, their verifications failed since the election, or they were removed for other reasons – after voting," De Luca said.
Civitas has pointed to failed voter verification issues before. Following the 2016 election, De Luca was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that complained roughly 3,000 people who registered and voted on the same day failed the state's verification process, which uses the mail. Asked about the difference between that claim of 3,000 voters and "tens of thousands," De Luca said the statistic he was citing was more recent than the lawsuit, which he has since withdrawn.
Fact Check: Political claims "The board of elections has actually published data that shows tens of thousands of people who voted have since been made inactive, which means they failed some kind of test in the system," De Luca said.
THE QUESTION: Have "tens of thousands" of 2016 voters in North Carolina been removed as active voters since the election? If so, what does that mean?
THE NUMBERS: According to the State Board of Elections, 29,673 people who voted between Sept. 9, when the early voting period began, and Election Day are now "inactive" in the voting registration system.
For context, 4.6 million people voted in the general election, meaning that those moved to inactive status are less than 0.6 percent. Still, that number is not insignificant. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, won by only 10,277 votes statewide over former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory last year.
WHAT DOES INACTIVE MEAN: The first thing to know is that inactive voters are still registered voters, albeit voters who have run into some sort of administrative issue.
"If an inactive voter presents to vote, the person will be asked to update his or her address with the board of elections," according to the State Board of Elections.
So, how does someone become an inactive voter?
"Voters become 'inactive' because mail sent by county boards of elections is returned as undeliverable or a voter doesn't respond to a confirmation mailing," said state Elections Director Kim Strach.
Mailings are sent out when voters update their registration, a local board changes a polling place or other administrative changes take place.
"Also, twice a year, the state board uses United States Postal Service data to send mailings to registered voters who have submitted Official Change of Address forms to the Postal Service to ensure those voters update their registrations," according to elections board spokesman Patrick Gannon.
If that mail is returned undeliverable or voters don't respond to a request for more information, they fail verification and are marked inactive.
Voters can fail mail-in verification for any number of reasons, according to elections officials. Sometimes, people move and don't notify their local elections board. Some residences don't have mail service. And, in the case of many eastern North Carolina voters last year, many people have had to leave their homes due to flooding.
"Mail verification status in February 2017 doesn't tell you whether a voter was qualified last fall," Strach said. "Mail verification is not a stand-in for residency requirements under the State Constitution, and no law requires that the mail verification process be completed before a qualified individual is permitted to vote."
OPENING FOR TROUBLE: In a phone interview Friday, De Luca pointed out that someone who registered to vote before an election and failed mail-in verification would simply not be added to the voter rolls. Voters using same-day registration or failing verification at other points should be treated the same, he argued.
As for the 29,673 voters moved to inactive status, De Luca said he can't make a blanket statement about them, but he argues at least some of them shouldn't have been able to cast ballots.
"I would definitely say there were some who maybe should not have voted," he said.
For example, 2,206 people who failed verification registered to vote and voted on the same day. De Luca argues those votes shouldn't have counted. Had a 2013 change to state election laws eliminating same-day registration been in effect, they wouldn't have. But a federal court order overturning that law was in effect for the 2016 election.
It's worth noting that people using same-day registration would have had to provide documentation they live at the address where they were registering to vote.
Close elections not withstanding, Strach said, the people in question were legal voters at the time they cast their ballots. State and federal election laws govern how they should be treated, she said.
"Put simply, being 'inactive' a couple months after an election doesn't mean a person wasn't eligible to vote on Election Day," Strach said.
THE CALL: This fact check isn't looking at the overall issue of voter fraud. Every year brings a handful of voter fraud prosecutions throughout the country, including in North Carolina. While elections experts acknowledge those cases of fraud, they say individual anecdotes can't be extrapolated to make broader claims.
What this fact check does explore is De Luca's claim that North Carolina election board data indicates that "tens of thousands of people" may have not been properly registered and voted anyway.
De Luca is right on the numbers but light on the context. State Board of Elections data show nearly 30,000 people who voted in 2016 are now "inactive" for various reasons. But that change in status does not indicate they were not properly registered or weren't legally allowed to vote.
"It's a good thing to have investigations. It's a good thing to verify and find facts," said Abita Ellis, an elections expert and professor with the West Virginia University College of Law, who appeared on "On the Record" with De Luca.
"I wouldn't walk into this room and say that there's no illegal voting going on," Ellis said, adding that it would be "reckless" to make claims of voter fraud without proof.
"Without proof of these sorts of things, (it) generates paranoia," he said.
We give De Luca's statement a yellow light, a "caution" on our fact checking scale, because the raw number of voters shifting to inactive status does not tell a complete story and does not, by itself, make the case that illegal votes were cast.