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Question over recognizing new political parties falls into North Carolina's GOP vs. Democrat divide

Rose Roby, with the Justice for All Party of North Carolina and a volunteer involving the Cornel West campaign, left, speaks at a news conference outside the Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, June 3, 2024, to discuss petition signature efforts by the group to qualify as an official political party in the state. News conference speakers supported making West the party's candidate for president on state ballots this fall. (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson)
Gary D. Robertson
/
AP
Rose Roby, with the Justice for All Party of North Carolina and a volunteer involving the Cornel West campaign, left, speaks at a news conference outside the Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, June 3, 2024, to discuss petition signature efforts by the group to qualify as an official political party in the state. News conference speakers supported making West the party's candidate for president on state ballots this fall. (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson)

One of two Republicans on the North Carolina State Board of Elections called a recent vote to deny recognition for a third party a "political hit job."

But the board's Democratic chairman, Alan Hirsch, sought to reassure three groups petitioning for recognition that they more than likely have met the statutory requirements by collecting enough valid signatures and that recognition was just a matter of time. Hirsch added that any delay was intended only to allow the board staff to do its due diligence in verifying the legitimacy of the groups' petitions and not politically motivated.

On June 26, representatives of the Constitution Party, We the People Party, and Justice for All Party, appeared before the state elections board in a virtual meeting to answer questions about their petitions for state recognition.

State law requires petitions with enough signatures from registered North Carolina voters to equal at least .25% of voters who cast ballots in the most recent general election for governor. Based on that, the minimum number of valid signatures required for recognition as a party in North Carolina is 13,865.

The signatures first must be verified by county elections boards before the petitions are passed on to the state board.

Deep-pocketed effort behind blocking recognition

Each petitioning party has met and exceeded that threshold by thousands of signatures, which is why Stacy Eggers, one of two Republicans on the five-member state board, pushed for a vote on recognition of all three groups.

"I don't see anything here that would cause us, much like the Constitution Party, to say that they're in violation of the requirements for their signature gathering," said Eggers before calling for a vote on Justice for All's petition.

At the June 26 board meeting, the 3-2 party-line vote against recognizing the Constitution Party centered solely on questions around a discrepancy in the residential address for the group's chairman. All indications were those questions would be cleared up quickly and the Constitution Party will gain recognition at the state board's meeting on Tuesday, July 9.

Much of the controversy swirls around the We the People and Justice for All efforts to gain recognition. We the People's preferred candidate is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. In the case of Justice for All, their presidential candidate is Cornel West.

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during the Libertarian National Convention at the Washington Hilton in Washington, Friday, May 24, 2024.
Jose Luis Magana
/
AP
Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during the Libertarian National Convention at the Washington Hilton in Washington, Friday, May 24, 2024.

Democrats see Kennedy and West as potential spoilers who could take votes away from the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, currently President Joe Biden.

The Elias Law Group, a well-known Washington, D.C.-based firm associated with Democratic Party causes, has filed objections with the North Carolina elections board opposing recognition for We the People.

The law firm filed its objections on behalf of Clear Choice Action, a super PAC working to preventing the interference of third-party and independent candidates in this year's presidential race.

In their letter to the state board, attorneys with the Elias Law Group alleged the We the People Party was formed for the sole purpose of allowing Kennedy to circumvent North Carolina's tighter rules for independent candidates who want to get on the ballot.

The Elias Law Group also provided affidavits from 26 voters who allegedly signed the We the People petition but have since asked that their signatures be removed.

Ballot access for independent candidates much higher

While political parties only need 13,865 for recognition, an independent candidate would need signatures from a number of qualified voters that equals at least 1.5% of the number that voted in the most recent race for governor, or, in this case, 83,188 signatures.

In the petition script used by We the People to sign up voters, Kennedy is referred to as "an independent." But We the People's North Carolina chairwoman, Ceara Foley, clarified what the use of "independent" meant in response to questions from the state elections board's Democratic members about what potential petition signers were told about We the People's goals.

"I think everybody hears that as independent of Republicans and Democrats and that's part of our general purpose," said Foley, distinguishing independent from Unaffiliated, which is an official voter registration label in North Carolina.

Foley criticized the campaign by the Elias Law Group and Clear Choice Action to oppose what she characterized as a grassroots effort by We the People.

"It's a concerted effort with a lot of money behind it," Foley said at the June 26 meeting, adding that one of her group's board members called it 'lawfare.'

In 2022, the state elections board initially denied the Green Party certification over allegations of fraudulent signature gathering but ultimately gave the Greens official recognition.

The Green Party's efforts also faced opposition and scrutiny from the Elias Law Group.

The Green Party needed a federal district court to intervene and allow the group to have their candidates added to the North Carolina ballot after a statutory deadline for doing so had passed.

Elections board questioned by Congress, state legislators

While Democrats on the state elections boards wanted to postpone a vote on certification, GOP members insisted on proceeding because the three groups seeking party recognition had met all the requirements.

"I'm afraid that you're probably a victim of a political hit job and I'm sorry if we've wasted your time today," said Kevin Lewis, one of the Republican board members, addressing Italo Medelius, chairman of North Carolina's chapter of Justice for All. "But I appreciate your coming and answering our questions honestly and we'll see where it leads."

In his statements to the elections board, Medelius acknowledged that some outside groups helped Justice for All collect petition signatures and that Justice for All could not account for all the tactics used in the petition effort.

Lewis went on to say that he was not accusing any members of the state elections board of participating in a "political hit job" but was referring to the efforts by the Elias Law Group and Clear Choice Action to prevent recognition.

As part of its objection to Justice for All's petition, Clear Choice Action cited evidence of a right-wing activist named Scott Presler who collected petition signatures for Justice for All at a pro-Donald Trump rally.

State Elections Board Chairman Alan Hirsch repeatedly assured the petitioning parties that the decision to deny recognition for "just for now" so the board could get "better information" about the petition campaigns.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress and the North Carolina General Assembly have started inquiries into the state elections board's decision to deny recognition of the three petitioning parties.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.