Another voting lawsuit in NC, this time over new absentee fraud rules

Posted March 4, 2020 5:10 p.m. EST
Updated March 4, 2020 6:41 p.m. EST

— A get-out-the-vote group backed by a legal team with ties to the Democratic Party sued the state Wednesday in an effort to overturn absentee ballot security measures that the General Assembly passed last year in the wake of major election fraud.

Senate Bill 683 contained a number of election measures, and it passed the legislature 160-1 as a response to fraud in the 9th Congressional District election in 2018 that targeted absentee ballots. The lawsuit argues that the bill went too far by severely limiting who can help voters fill out absentee ballot request forms and submit them.

Advance North Carolina, a group that works in black communities to get out the vote, argues that the law takes "aim at lawful, constitutionally protected activities, like grassroots organizing and absentee voting application drives."

Voting absentee-by-mail is a multi-step process. The voter fills out a request form, and in the past, it's been OK for groups to fill out those forms for people and deliver them to the local board of elections. That changed last year after state officials realized a Republican operative and his team in the 9th District submitted more than 1,000 of those request forms in Bladen and Robeson counties.

The group also prepared request forms ahead of time, taking them for voters to sign, according to evidence gathered by state investigators. The ringleader's associates told investigators they were paid $150 for gathering 50 absentee ballot request forms.

The request forms weren't the main problem, though. The crew then went back to voters and collected their absentee ballots as well. That's a crime in North Carolina.

Senate Bill 683 also made it generally illegal for anyone other than a voter, a near relative or a county election official to fill out an absentee ballot request form or deliver it to the board of elections.

"By imposing barriers to requesting an absentee ballot, and invalidating requests that do not adhere to the state’s new restrictions, the organizing ban reduces access to vote-by-mail opportunities on which Advance Carolina’s members and other voters have come to rely or would otherwise utilize, thereby burdening their fundamental right to vote," the lawsuit states.

The suit was filed by the Patterson Harkavy law firm in Chapel Hill and the Perkins Coie firm in Washington, D.C. Perkins Coie has been involved in a number of election lawsuits in North Carolina and around the country. The firm's political law group chair, Marc Elias, was Hillary Clinton's attorney during the 2016 presidential elections, and Elias represented Democrat Dan McCready during last year's State Board of Elections hearings into the 9th District results.

Those hearings led to a do-over election last fall.

Leadership in the Republican-majority General Assembly noted Wednesday that the bill passed with broad bipartisan support and that it was signed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

"The reforms in no way prevent any organization from encouraging absentee voting, as the lawsuit falsely claims, and lawmakers will defend these common-sense bipartisan reforms to protect the voice of North Carolina voters from fraud," said Joseph Kyzer, spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore.

Brent Woodcox, an in-house attorney for Senate Republicans, noted on Twitter that former state Sen. Floyd McKissick, who is black, co-sponsored the bill.

"So the argument here is that @FloydMcKissick was sponsoring a bill to try to suppress the African American vote?" Woodcox tweeted. "I'm starting to worry our justice system is being abused."

The lawsuit, Advance North Carolina v. The State of North Carolina, asks that a three-judge panel to reinstate the state's old absentee ballot application procedures.

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