Fact Check: Accusations Over Voter Subpoena And How Fake News Concerning Gov. Cooper Spread

Feb 13, 2019

In politics, there are a lot of accusations, claims and misinformation dressed up as fact. Politifact has made a name for assessing these on the national level – and assigning them labels like true, half-true and pants on fire. A group of reporters is doing the same for North Carolina politics. It’s a collaboration between Politifact, Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab and the Raleigh News and Observer.

News and Observer reporter Paul Specht fact checks a few claims every week. He joined WFAE’s Lisa Worf to fact check some recent news.

Worf: OK so let's start with the North Carolina Board of Elections and its response to a subpoena by the U.S. Attorney's Office. You investigate claims that the state hasn't complied with the subpoena.

Specht: That's right. There were a couple of legislators — one was Dustin Hall and the other was Holly Grange — and they’re newly appointed to one of the Judiciary Committees. And one of the first things they did in January was to write a letter claiming that the elections board declined to comply with grand jury subpoenas for voting records. Their point was that the elections board was dragging its feet since the subpoenas were issued in August.

Worf: And is that true?

Credit Paul Specht

Specht: It is not necessarily true. It's true that it has taken several months for the North Carolina elections board to produce the ballots and other election materials that the U.S. Attorney's Office wants.

However, the letter makes it seem like this is something that the elections board is running from, has rebuked, is ignoring. Well, that's not the case. The attorney for the Eastern District is Robert Higdon. Since August, when the subpoena was issued, they’d been in talks with him about the scope of it — the initial subpoena asked for about over millions of documents. And just last week, they reached a deal to produce just 700 documents [actual number: 789]— which is a huge difference.

Worf: So does that mean that's all they're planning to hand over? That both sides have agreed to those 800 documents.

Specht: That's right. You know, when they first issued the subpoena it was overly broad and it requested everything from voter ballots to voter registration forms to early voting applications dating back from 2018 to 2010. That's a long time.

And so you can imagine a small agency like the Board of Elections having to scrounge up all those documents and then redact personal information would take a very long time. And so, that's why the attorney's office wrote a letter in response to the elections board saying they were willing to work with them and willing to negotiate on the scope of this request.

Worf: In the letter where these claims come from, one of them was that it seeks to uncover potential election fraud in North Carolina. Do we know the reason for this subpoena?

Specht: No we don't. Both Republicans Holly Grange and Dustin Hall claimed that this subpoena from the U.S. Attorney's Office was meant to uncover election fraud. But that's not stated anywhere in the subpoena. His office has never come out and said that and the subpoena was issued at the request of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

Now ICE does some work in trying to legitimize elections, but that's not their main purpose. You know their main purpose of late has been finding and deporting immigrants. And so, it's misleading to say that the immigration agency is out solely looking for bad actors when it comes to elections.

Worf: Another statement you looked at was made as something of a joke. Rep. David Lewis said offhandedly that North Carolina and Texas have more redistricting litigation than the other 48 states combined. We do have a lot. Is that true?

Specht: I hate not to give you a straight answer, but it depends on how you count. So we have four active lawsuits on the books. And Texas has one, but it's one includes six different legal challenges in that one lawsuit. So, that's a grand total of 11 lawsuits. And he's right that the rest of the country only has 10.

Worf: Now another claim you investigated involved Gov. Roy Cooper and a UNC yearbook from 1979. Someone had tweeted that it was Cooper in this yearbook photo of two men in KKK robes and hoods holding onto a noose that’s around the neck of another student in blackface. How did that claim spread so quickly when it had no basis in truth?

Specht: We should say right at the outset that Roy Cooper is not in any offensive photo like that, that we know about. But that particular tweet was spawned from a misleading headline.

This young man Jacob wall — a Trump supporter and conservative activist — tweeted, “Racist picture of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper emerges just days after he called on Ralph Northam to resign” and then he cited the Daily Mail — which is sort of a tabloidesque media outlet based in the UK.

You can see where he saw that Daily Mail headline and, either knowingly or unknowingly, repeated it and took it one step further. And so we wrote about that — sort of the origins of fake news, if you will.

You know it starts with a UNC yearbook photo from the year that Roy was there. He's not in the photo. Then it goes to this tabloid that conflates Cooper's presence in the yearbook with Cooper's presence in the photo, which is which is not true. And then it goes another step further to this partisan activist who conflates it all and says Roy Cooper is in racist photos, which is a pants on fire lie.

Paul Specht will be joining WFAE’s Morning Edition every Wednesday to FactCheck North Carolina news. If you have any claims you want the PolitiFact team to check out, you can email them at factcheck@newsobserver.com.