@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

GOP lawmaker backs down from threat to force way into Durham elections office

Posted October 7, 2021 11:26 a.m. EDT
Updated October 7, 2021 7:14 p.m. EDT

— A group of Republican House members announced Thursday that they are launching a fraud investigation into North Carolina elections and said they would start by inspecting voting machines in Durham County, with or without the cooperation of state or county election officials.

Rep. Jeff McNeely, R-Iredell, conducted a "random drawing" of a county name out of a hat, and Durham County was chosen. Perhaps coincidentally, Republicans have accused Durham County of voter fraud in the past, especially in 2016, when a late vote tally there swung the governor's race in favor of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper over then-incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

Citing "many, many millions of accusations" of "machine tampering and votes being switched because of modems," McNeely said at a news conference that lawmakers intend to see for themselves whether the machines have modems in them.

Voting machines in North Carolina do not have modems and are not connected to the internet, by state law.

"We look forward to working with them, proving that our elections were true and were valid and there was nothing wrong with them. If that's not the case, then we look to do an investigation, and if there needs to be criminal charges, they will be filed," McNeely told reporters.

"We will also be accommodated and assisted by the [General Assembly] police in our investigation, and they will be the ones that will help us go and find any evidence and help us secure it," he added.

McNeely brandished a roll of red evidence tape that he said would ensure voting machines at the Durham County Board of Elections office could be secured "so that nothing could go forward from here," until his group can conduct an inspection with a technician from the voting machine manufacturer.

The effort appears to mimic "audits" by Republicans in other states, notably Arizona, to cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election and election integrity in general.

Asked whether they believe President Joe Biden was duly elected, McNeely and Rep. Bobby Hanig, R-Dare, said they didn't know. Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, said no.

State elections director Karen Brinson Bell has repeatedly told the House Freedom Caucus that no unauthorized person, least of all elected officials, is allowed to "inspect" voting machines.

Asked if that's changed, McNeely said he believes state law gives them that authority.

"So, we will start with that," he said, "and if we have to use, like I said, our escorts and the [General Assembly] police to help us, we will do whatever it takes to go about our mission."

By the end of the day, however, McNeely had backed down, saying he would simply drive by the building where the Durham County Board of Elections keeps its voting machines to see for himself whether the machines were secure.

Brinson Bell called the news conference a "stunt" that undermines public confidence in North Carolina's elections.

"We've got so many measures in place to secure our elections from outside influence and attacks, and, you know, our federal authorities confirmed that as well," she said. "It's a shame that we're hearing this when we have certified that election. The very elected officials who were elected through that process have taken their their seats in office, including some of the ones that are questioning these elections."

Rep. Zack Hawkins, D-Durham, took offense at McNeely's plans to impound Durham County voting machines, calling it "a slap" to suggest the county's elections aren't on the level.

"The people in Durham County take elections very seriously," Hawkins said on the House floor. "You are not welcome in Durham County, and I'm not sure if you want to step foot in Durham County and try to inspect the machines. You will not be greeted as liberators, let me be clear.”

McNeely responded by saying that he would think every county would welcome an inspection to demonstrate their election integrity.

“I would hope that we would have an open door, and I would hope that any representative from the county chosen would gladly join us to prove that they are what they say they are – and that is a true county of true elections," he said.

House Speaker Tim Moore then cut off further comments on the issue, saying the chamber was scheduled to debate an elections bill next Tuesday.

General Assembly Police Chief Martin Brock didn't immediately respond to an inquiry from WRAL News about his agency's participation in McNeely's probe.

Moore's office referred questions about how General Assembly police could be used to Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble, who oversees day-to-day operations and staff at the statehouse.

Coble said lawmakers can't requisition officers, but they can request them, and McNeely hadn't submitted a request. Coble was reticent to get into the details of what officers can and can't do, given the hypothetical nature of McNeely's visit to the Durham County Board of Elections.

But he stressed, repeatedly, that the General Assembly ​Police Department exists to protect lawmakers. Officers often travel with legislators, including during the recent public hearings around the state on redistricting.

Durham County is currently in its canvass period after Tuesday's primary election for Durham mayor and City Council, and early voting for the general election begins Oct. 12.

In a statement, Durham County Elections Director Derek Bowens said the inspection would not be allowed: "No one will be permitted to inspect voting equipment in Durham County, as per statute and direction from the Executive Director of the State Board of Elections."

Brinson Bell echoed that, adding that the Durham election cannot be disrupted.

"North Carolina law is very clear, and we're adhering to the law," she said. "Only county election officials or state election officials are allowed to do anything to the voting equipment. The public is allowed to observe when we test and secure and audit our voting equipment, which we do with every single election. But to actually give access to anyone would be a violation of law."

Brinson Bell noting that elections offices have bipartisan staff whose only goal is to ensure elections are carried out accurately.

"We do not need to be in a situation where there's any further threat to people who are simply public servants carrying out the job that we are committed to doing, and that is ensuring that everyone has the right to vote," she said. "We don't want a spectacle. What we want is to see voter turnout and confidence in our elections."

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