Election Integrity Means Different Things To NC GOP, Democrats
A debate is raging across the country over election integrity. For voters on the left, it's about fighting Republican-backed legislation they see as putting up barriers to the polls. For those on the right, it's about preventing voter fraud even if the threat of such conduct is more perception than reality.
Nowhere is that battle being fought more clearly, and intensely, than in North Carolina.
Raleigh was a recent stop on the "Freedom Ride for Voting Rights" tour, a roving demonstration that started in Louisiana, headed for Washington, D.C., where Democrats are pushing sweeping legislation to protect ballot access through the "For the People Act."
"We turned out in record numbers last year and we did something in a pandemic that folks did not think that we could do," said Danielle Brown, North Carolina's state coordinator for Black Voters Matter, one of the organizing groups behind the Freedom Ride.
The Freedom Ride demonstration held a rally last week across from the North Carolina General Assembly, where Republicans in the state Senate have proposed a number of election-related bills, including one called the Election Integrity Act that would eliminate a three-day grace period under state law for counting mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day.
"What scares me the most is that there are political leaders that actually think that it has integrity in it," said Brown, laughing ruefully.
In many ways, 2020 was a banner year for North Carolina elections. The state saw historic voter turnout of around 75% of registered voters in the general election, despite difficulties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. And, in a high-water mark for bipartisanship, the often bitterly divided General Assembly came together to pass elections legislation almost unanimously that, among other things, eased mail-in voting and provided counties with added resources to make in-person voting safer.
Still, state Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus, Union) calls the 2020 elections in North Carolina a mixed success.
"So when you think elections and election integrity and fair and free, you've got to balance, you know, fair, free and secure," he said.
Newton chairs the state Senate's Redistricting and Elections committee and co-authored the Election Integrity Act as well as two other bills, one that addresses online absentee voting for visually impaired people and another that would prohibit private funding for elections administration.
"Nothing draconian there, but we saw some things there that need to be shored up," he said.
After that bipartisan elections bill was passed in June, it didn't take long for Republicans and Democrats in state government to revert to partisan rancor over elections.
Voting and civil rights groups filed more than two dozen lawsuits challenging the new law — demanding, among other things, a longer grace period for mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to be received and counted.
As a defendant in the lawsuits, the state elections board crafted a legal settlement with the plaintiffs that, for 2020 only, extended the grace period from three to nine days. Legislative Republicans, also defendants, were left out of those negotiations and excoriated the settlement. They accused the appointed elections board's Democratic majority and Gov. Roy Cooper's administration of colluding with left-leaning groups behind the lawsuits. It should be noted that a federal appeals court ultimately upheld the extended grace period and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the issue.
"As we sat there and watched the news and we saw that other states were calling races that were not razor-thin margins, left and right, but North Carolina didn't, and for days and days we sat there and North Carolina couldn't declare a winner," Newton complained. "That's because of the nine days it was given. We had to wait for those votes to come in and, to me, that created suspicion in the minds of voters. 'What's going on, what could be going on during these nine days?'"
WUNC spoke with two staffers with the State Board of Elections, Communications Director Pat Gannon, and General Counsel Katelyn Love, about the process behind auditing and certifying elections in North Carolina.
Gannon pointed out that the Board of Elections never calls races or declares winners, it certifies results after a painstaking and thorough review process.
"There are multiple audits conducted by the state and county boards after every election," Gannon explained.
"In 2021," he said, for example, "every single ballot was re-run through a machine as part of the recount in the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court race. That's every single ballot cast statewide."
The chief justice race, ultimately won by Republican Paul Newby, was a tight contest hinging on just hundreds of votes.
"In addition," Gannon continued, "every county sampled two precincts where they took every ballot cast in those precincts and bipartisan teams counted them by hand, counted the presidential contest by hand. They compared the results of the hand-to-eye count to the results of the count by the machines, by the tabulators, and out of 200 precincts counted only 13 precincts showed any difference whatsoever between the machine count and the hand-to-eye count and no precinct had a difference greater than three, a vote difference greater than three, between the hand count and the machine count. That tells us that the machine counts are extremely accurate."
I also asked Gannon whether voter fraud was commonplace and widespread in North Carolina. In the five-year period from 2016 to the present, the elections board's investigations division referred roughly 600 voting-related cases to prosecutors. The vast majority of those involved active felons who voted while still serving a sentence.
"When put into perspective those 600 or so cases are a tiny proportion of the millions and millions of ballots cast in the elections during that time," Gannon said.
"We do not believe that there is a voter fraud problem in North Carolina. It is not rampant, it is most often not organized in any way, there are one-off cases that happen very sparingly but they are not rampant in North Carolina."
And these instances of active felons mistakenly thinking they were eligible to vote did not involve mail-in ballots or the post-Election Day grace period.
"After the post-election audit was done in 2017," added Katelyn Love, the elections board's general counsel, "and most of the cases were these people who were voting while on felony probation, the state board worked to make improvements to its forms, to its educational materials, to its posters that are at voting sites and we also work with other agencies like [the Department of Public Safety] to help make sure that people who are not eligible to vote know that so that this doesn't happen in the future."
"So, you know, those numbers were in part because the information that was provided at the time was not complete to people who were on felony probation."
"We do not believe that there is a voter fraud problem in North Carolina. It is not rampant ..."Pat Gannon, State Board of Elections Communications Director
And Love said there is a system in place to prevent fraud in North Carolina's absentee ballot process.
"The postmark requirement is in place to prevent fraudulent activity with absentee ballots that might be received after Election Day," she said. "And, so, in order for a ballot to be counted under current law with that three-day grace period, it must have that stamp from the U.S. Postal Service indicating that it was put in the mail on Election Day."
"If it doesn't have it it won't be counted, so we have not seen fraud that's associated with that postmark."
'But what about Bladen County?'
At this point, you might be thinking 'But what about Bladen County?'
For those of you who don't remember, the 2018 race in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District was thrown out after elections board investigators found an operative working on behalf of Republican candidate Mark Harris had organized a ballot-harvesting scheme that involved the illegal collection of, and tampering with, batches of voters' mail-in ballots.
That incident, however, was unique in its scope and it wasn't voter fraud, it was coordinated election fraud by a for-hire operative. That scandal also had nothing to do with the post-Election Day grace period for mail-in ballots. North Carolina has had a three-day post-Election Day grace period for mail-in ballots since 2009 — and properly postmarked ballots mailed in from overseas by military personnel and other citizens abroad get a grace period of nine days after Election Day.
So with virtually no evidence that a fraud problem exists with respect to mail-in ballots and the post-Election Day grace period for counting them, I pressed Senator Newton on why he felt a need to eliminate the grace period altogether. North Carolina has had a three-day grace period for receiving and counting mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day since 2009, and ballots from military and other citizens overseas enjoy a nine-day grace period.
"So polling has been done," Newton said, "and some 60% of Republicans, 43% of Independents, and 20% of Democrats are saying that they do not have confidence that the 2022 elections will be free and fair. That is what I am trying to address. That's not good for anybody regardless of party. This is not about partisanship. It's about building the foundation of integrity of our voting system so that regardless of the outcome everyone is confident the right person was elected fairly."
OK, but what is actually eroding people's confidence? Is it the evidence of real fraudulent activity or is it the constant drumbeat from Republicans of 'Your elections aren't reliable, something needs to be done to bolster integrity?'
The timing of Newton's legislation might be suspect to Democrats and members of the voting rights advocacy community, WUNC suggested to the GOP senator. Coming as it has after the tumultuous 2020 elections followed by former President Donald Trump's false, baseless claims about those elections being stolen from him, the January 6 insurrection by pro-Trump supporters, for which U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, voted to impeach Trump because of the role he played in inciting those riots.
"So you did a great job putting together, piecing together, sort of a national narrative around why any voting integrity bill should be dismissed out of hand," Newton responded.
"The challenge is to look behind that headline, look at the actual words used in the bill, and they're available online to anyone who wants to look at them but we have voter access, we have the elimination of private funds and then we have Election Day as the deadline. Tell me who that disproportionately helps. Nobody. There's nothing partisan about any of these bills, they're all very carefully [written] to incrementally improve confidence in our electoral system in North Carolina."
But the debate around elections integrity is highly partisan. Something even he admitted. A Democrat, for example, is likely to say 'My concern over integrity is that Republican-led legislatures are trying to put up roadblocks or at least curtail access to the polls,' whereas the integrity question for a Republican seems to be 'We're letting anybody come in and cast a ballot that's fraudulent and that's going to tip the scales in favor of an illegitimate election.'
"You're right," Newton said. "And so as I work with my Democrat colleagues I recognized that they were not going to vote for making Election Day the deadline. So I broke up the bill into three bills."
One bill would give visually impaired voters a portal for casting an absentee ballot online. That bill also contains a provision that would fund a mobile unit for getting photo IDs to voters that cannot get to a DMV office or local elections board office to obtain identification.
Photo ID is still not required for in-person voting in North Carolina. A mostly Republican-backed law requiring photo ID for voters is bound up in court awaiting a ruling on its constitutionality from a three-judge panel in state court.
The other GOP-sponsored bill in the state Senate would prohibit private funding of elections administration.
"To me, there's nothing more quintessentially government than running an election," Newton said. "But when you've got the Zuckerberg Foundation that's paying people bonuses to work in a county board of elections it raises the question who are they working for? Are they working for the county? Are they non-partisan and impartial or are they, because they're being paid by a left-wing organization, in this case, are they working for the Zuckerberg Foundation? It just raises those suspicions and for my Democrat friends, imagine it were the Koch brothers."
State Sen. Dan Blue (D-Wake), however, pointed out that funding from such private organizations was crucial last year, thanks to extra costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Ninety-seven out of 100 counties in this state had to accept money from private sources," Blue maintained. "It was done in such a way that it had credibility, stuff like pens and pencils to mark ballots with, hand sanitizers, safety masks and all those other things that we had not paid for that the local boards had not gotten money from their local boards of commissioners to pay for and the state had no funds or insufficient funds to cover those kinds of expenses."
Sen. Blue said funds came from all kinds of corporations including McDonald's and Anheuser-Busch. And what about the Zuckerberg Foundation?
"They may have too," Blue said. "But they're private foundations giving money with no strings attached to help local governments do what local governments, that is boards of elections, had to do to run as flawless an election as possible and they were successful at it."
WUNC asked Blue why he thought the Democrats and Republicans talk about election integrity in such different terms.
"I want every person who's eligible to be able to exercise that right to vote until somebody shows me that it can't be done in a responsible way," Blue said.
"And I think that (legislative Republicans) come at it from the other angle. They want people to vote but I think that they don't inherently believe that a lot of voters want to be honest about the way they're voting, and so they try to put the burden on those potential voters to prove that they're going to be honest, or that they're not going to do dishonest things and so it's a question of presumption."
With Democrat Roy Cooper as governor, and Republicans holding only a simple majority in the legislature, an upheld veto over the election-related legislation in its current form seems likely.
But the issues at play will rage on as we hurtle towards the 2022 midterm elections.
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