RALEIGH, N.C. — Updates to otherwise mundane North Carolina rules on filing and evaluating election protests are drawing attention after last fall’s tight gubernatorial race.
State elections board attorneys took public comment Monday on tentative rules taking shape in the months after Republicans filed dozens of protests soon after Election Day challenging votes cast by several hundred people.
Most protests seeking to throw out ballots were dismissed by election officials for lack of evidence or set aside until after the election. It was early December before GOP Gov. Pat McCrory conceded the election to Democrat Roy Cooper, who won by a little over 10,000 votes of the more than 4.7 million ballots cast.
The proposal would adjust the forms protesters must file, force them to reveal any outside legal help they received and tell them that filing a false claim is subject to perjury laws and a possible low-grade felony. The form also makes clear it shouldn’t be used to challenge individual voter registrations or irregularities that wouldn’t affect the outcome of an election.
Some speakers Monday represented a group that previously called on state and federal officials to investigate McCrory’s campaign and the state Republican Party for the protests. Democracy North Carolina leader Bob Hall praised the proposed protest changes, saying McCrory’s campaign and its allies abused the system and besmirched voters identified in the protests with baseless accusations of illegal voting.
“Highly partisan agents capitalized on problems with the protest form to accuse hundreds of innocent voters with voter fraud in order to delay the official canvass for weeks,” Hall told the attorneys, citing his group’s report, which included interviews with wrongly accused voters.
Republicans and McCrory’s team have defended the protest filings as legitimate complaints that led county and state election board members to scrutinize voter rolls. Most of the voter challenges alleged that ballots had been cast by convicted felons, dead people or those who voted in another state.
State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse told the lawyers the rules changes exceed the board’s powers as set in state law and would stifle ordinary people seeking to ensure lawful voting occurs.
“The process actually worked last year,” said Tom Stark, a Republican attorney who filed a separate protest over the tabulation of more than 90,000 early votes in Durham County. “This set of rules presents a tightening that has the effect of chilling the whole process and is inappropriate.”
State election officials said in April that their audit of last fall’s elections determined about 500 ineligible voters cast ballots, the vast majority of them active felons. The report didn’t include any evidence of coordinated fraud, and election officials would seek to improve electronic methods to check on the criminal status of people registering to vote.
More than 1,000 written comments on the rules already had been filed on top of the more than a dozen speakers at the hearing before Monday’s public comment deadline. Other proposed changes address election precinct observers, curbside voting and the state board executive director’s powers during natural disasters.
Staff will now aggregate the responses for the board, which will decide whether changes should advance to a state rule-making panel for final approval. That will have to wait until an actual board is seated. Cooper and the Republican-controlled legislature are currently fighting in court over whether a law creating a new eight-member panel for elections and ethics matters is constitutional.