GOP push back as state works up new rules to challenge votes

Posted July 31

— Proposed changes to the way votes can be challenged, and other edits to North Carolina election rules, generated more than 1,000 public comments after the controversy that followed last year's tight gubernatorial election.

Many of those comments are redundant, forms filled out as Republicans and Democrats jostle over a rule-making process that will lay out just how many hoops someone has to jump through to accuse someone else of casting an ineligible vote and whether they must swear their own oath to do so.

Last year's election produced hundreds of these challenges from GOP supporters pushing back against Gov. Roy Cooper's narrow win. Most were derailed by lack of evidence, and a subsequent report from Democracy North Carolina, a left-leaning good-government group, highlighted individuals who believed they were unfairly targeted by baseless challenges when they were fully qualified to vote.

A separate review from the since-renamed State Board of Elections found 441 active felons who voted and should not have, but elections staff have since taken steps to beef up registration checks to prevent this from happening again. It's unclear how many of these felons were also challenged by GOP activists, as the two lists were developed separately.

None of these counts rose to numbers that could have swung an election's outcome last year.

Under the proposal working its way through the elections board now, the state form to protest someone's vote would go from about one page to three. There would be new requirements to acknowledge whether a candidate or other political group requested the protest and to disclose whether the protester is represented by an attorney.

There's also a new requirement to serve copies of the protest on everyone with a stake in it, including all candidates in the affected race and the people whose votes are being protested, and new language requiring the protester to swear, under penalty of perjury, that everything in the filing is true to his or her knowledge.

Altogether, this would cause a chilling effect, making protests too onerous to file, Republicans argued Monday during a public hearing in front of attorneys for the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. North Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said protests sometimes need to be filed before all facts are known, but the new form would "shut the door to common citizens filing protests" for local boards of election to investigate.

The oath requirement would also go beyond the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement's power, according to former state Rep. Paul Stam, who argued Monday that, because state statutes require oaths for other filings but not this one, the legislative intent is clear.

"If the General Assembly had intended that an oath be required for this procedure, it would have included such a requirement in the statute," Stam, a Republican attorney in Apex, said in written comments.

Speakers from the left on Monday generally backed the proposed changes. Some called for the rules to go further, saying affidavits from witnesses to voter fraud should be required, not be optional as they are in the existing form and on the proposed new one.

Bob Hall of Democracy N.C. said "hundreds of innocent voters" were targeted by protests last year as Republicans used the process as "a political weapon." He named five specific people from his group's report who were "needlessly maligned."

No actual board members attended Monday's public hearing because they haven't been appointed. The board is in limbo as Cooper fights the Republican legislative majority over a change it made after Cooper beat former Gov. Pat McCrory, remaking an appointed board that had leaned toward the party of the governor in office into one made up of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.

Attorneys for the board took notes throughout the hearing instead. Changes can't be approved until the board is constituted.


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