Sting video about N.C. voting called incorrect, 'infuriating'

jprice@newsobserver.comMay 24, 2012 

  • About O’Keefe James O’Keefe has become known for releasing undercover video stings that tend to make a big splash, but often come under criticism for the methods used or selective editing. His best-known targets have included NPR executives; U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat; and the nonprofit group ACORN. In 2010, O’Keefe and three others were arrested in New Orleans at Landrieu’s offices while apparently working on one of his projects. Charges against them were eventually reduced, and they pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor: entering a federal building under false pretenses.

— In an undercover “sting” video that has caused a stir since debuting online last week, a national group led by conservative activist James O’Keefe cites the cases of three Wake County voters in an effort to show that it’s easy to commit voter fraud here.

The three examples used by Project Veritas, though, turned out to be wrong, according to elections officials and reporting by the News & Observer. And one family is upset that the name of their patriarch, who died in April, is being dragged into a political escapade.

“I don’t even know what to say, except that it makes you feel violated,” said Winifred Bolton of Raleigh. She is the widow of Michael G. Bolton, who died of cancer April 23 at age 63.

Michael Bolton is cited in the video, posted on YouTube, as an example of what the narrator calls “ballots being offered out in the name of the dead.”

Bolton had been a sports star at Broughton High School and was a community pillar in Raleigh, serving on the N.C. State University alumni association board, the NCSU Centennial Gateway Committee and on the boards of the Raleigh Little Theatre and North Carolina Theatre.

Two weeks after his death, on the day of the May 8 primary, a Veritas operator clad in a strange outfit built around green lederhosen, a multi-colored cap and a bleach job that made his beard and hair mismatch to a comical degree, appeared at Bolton’s polling place.

In the video, he identifies himself as Bolton and – according to the narrator – is offered Bolton’s ballot.

An unedited, three-and-a-half-hour version of the videotape on Veritas’ own website, though, shows that editors snipped out a key piece of the video: a poll worker asking the 20-something impersonator if he is Michael G. Bolton Junior.

The Veritas operative says yes.

Michael G. Bolton Jr. , who has the same address as his father, is very much alive.

His mother, Winifred Bolton, was the first member of the family to find out that something odd had happened at their polling place, Martin Middle School in Raleigh.

She said that when she went to vote about 1 p.m. that day, she was startled when poll workers asked her to remind her son to come back and finish voting. They said a man claiming to be Michael Jr. had left before filling out a ballot, had been acting oddly and wasn’t able to sign anything because he had injured his arm.

At first, Winifred Bolton was puzzled and frightened, she said. Later, someone pointed her to the video, and it finally became clear what had happened.

She and all four of her children are unhappy about being part of the stunt while still grieving. The imposter’s disguise and behavior were so odd, Bolton said, that surely it should have set off alarm bells.

“I feel like it was in bad taste,” she said. “And I also blame the poll workers for not handling it better.”

The real Michael Bolton Jr. called it “infuriating.”

“They should have at least asked our permission, or I guess maybe just picked someone who had been dead a lot longer,” he said.

But Veritas couldn’t pick someone who had been dead a long time, though. There isn’t a giant pool of dead registered voters whose name can be used. Every month, the state elections board gets a list from the Department of Health and Human Services of the people who have died. It then forwards those names electronically to county boards for their use in updating their rolls.

Gary Bartlett, executive director of the N.C. State Board of Elections, said he knows of only one case in which someone has actually managed to vote in the name of a dead person – a man who had used his father’s name.

The two other cases mentioned in the video are of a man in Raleigh and another man in Morrisville who the narrator describes as non-U.S. citizens illegally registered to vote. The video cites past documents that the men had been excused from jury duty because they were not citizens. But both attained citizenship after that and were eligible to vote on May 8.

“We checked,” Bartlett said. “They are both citizens.”

Push for voter ID

O’Keefe’s group was apparently trying to build support for efforts to require voters to present photo identification at polling places.

The Republican-led legislature approved such a measure last year, but Democratic Gov. Bev. Perdue vetoed it.

Such state bills have popped up all over the country, driven by conservative legislatures that cite public support for such measures and say they’re necessary to ensure that fraud can’t improperly swing an election. Critics, including various liberal groups, say they’re an attempt to disenfranchise poor voters, who are less likely to have the required identification and more likely to vote Democratic.

Voter fraud is unusual, but it happens, said Bartlett.

A report this year by his office that tallies cases referred for potential prosecution between 2000 and 2010 show that it’s unusual to have more than a dozen cases each year. Most allegations of voter fraud, according to the report, either prove to be false, are without criminal intent or can’t be substantiated.

A group called the Voter Integrity Project of NC also is challenging 553 Wake County registered voters who were excused from jury duty by stating they are not U.S. citizens.

Bartlett said elections officials have identified 41 names that need further checking to make sure they are legitimately registered, including 22 that voted in prior elections.

As for the Veritas video, Bartlett said, the operatives that impersonated various real voters may have committed a felony. State elections law bars anyone from “swearing falsely” in regard to any aspect of an election or primary, Bartlett said.

By filming inside a polling place without permission, Veritas also appears to have committed an infraction of a measure designed to protect voter privacy, according to Bartlett.

The elections board has reviewed three hours of the unedited version of the video and is still investigating, Bartlett said. In addition to anything illegal that the video crew might have done, the board wants to determine whether there were legitimate problems with illegal voting or with how poll workers handled the fake voters.

“We are looking at every aspect of this, and we are taking all of it seriously,” Bartlett said.

Veritas response

Officials with Veritas didn’t return calls seeking comment. Last week, though, O’Keefe sent an email response.

“It is unfortunate that the head of the elections board is prejudging the results of his investigation,” O’Keefe wrote. “Our elections process does rely upon honesty and transparency so investigations into whether our elections are being conducted properly can’t be harmful to the process – particularly ones that expose ballots being offered in the name of the dead or registered voters who refused jury service because they identified themselves as non-citizens.

“We look forward the results of the election board investigation. We are confident with this, as every previous inquiry, it will be found we in no way committed a wrongdoing,” his email said.

Bartlett said the video improperly undermines the trust that voters should have in elections.

“Election laws are based on honesty and self-policing, and when someone falsely brings validity of the process into question, that hurts the public’s confidence in the process,” he said.

When the investigation is complete, it will be referred to prosecutors to determine whether anyone should be charged with a crime, Bartlett said

O’Keefe’s video won at least one person over to his viewpoint: Winifred Bolton said she feels that the way the poll workers handled the incident is proof of Veritas’ point.

“I told the people at the polls that,” she said. “I said this is exactly why you should require an ID.” Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.

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