Politics & Government

Fact check: The NC Democrats overstated this law’s effect on election investigations

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Election fraud investigation

Read more about the investigation into the 9th Congressional District

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Neither Democrats nor Republicans seem to trust the other party to properly investigate election fraud in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District race.

The state elections board is investigating voting irregularities in the race between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready, which has left the seat vacant in Congress. Complicating matters: a legal tug-of-war between Gov. Roy Cooper and the GOP-led legislature recently left the elections office without board members.

To rectify the situation, legislators last month approved a bill that would launch a new elections board on Jan. 31. Democrats reacted with suspicion to the bill, claiming that it affects the transparency of investigations into elections fraud.

“The NC GOP can’t keep their story straight. They attacked the SBOE for lack of transparency. Now, they’re ramming through a provision that’ll make investigations like #NC09 *less* transparent,” the North Carolina Democratic Party tweeted on Dec. 27.

Cooper vetoed the bill and the legislature overrode his veto on Dec. 27, creating the new board.

Is it true that the N.C. General Assembly approved legislation that’ll reduce the transparency of investigations like the one into the Harris-McCready results? To rate the NC Democratic Party claim, we must look at the nature of that investigation.

As PolitiFact noted in a recent fact check of the North Carolina Republican Party, the state elections board hasn’t revealed much about the scope of its investigation, which is ongoing. But it appears to center on potential fraud in mail-in absentee ballots.

Doesn’t affect election fraud probes

PolitiFact reviewed the bill, and didn’t find evidence that it hides the process of election fraud investigations. Part 5 of the bill, which addresses absentee ballot fraud investigations, doesn’t mention anything about confidentiality. It says:

“By April 1, 2019, the State Board of Elections shall report and make recommendations to the Joint Legislative Elections and Ethics Oversight Committee on absentee ballot fraud. The report shall address all of the following: (1) Efforts to identify and investigate instances of potential mail-in ballot harvesting. (2) Data and statistics on the number of requests for mail-in absentee ballots, the number of returned mail-in absentee ballots for the past five election cycles, and any trends or patterns that appear analyzing those data and statistics. (3) Any other related matter identified by the State Board impacting voting absentee ballot.”

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The law does, however, require investigations into potential campaign finance violations to be confidential, The News & Observer reported.

It “only makes campaign finance investigations confidential. Not election fraud,” according to Gerry Cohen, former special counsel to the N.C. General Assembly and longtime legislative staffer.

State Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, was a lead negotiator of the bill. He said it affects campaign finance investigations, not allegations of other election law violations.

He added it may increase transparency. “First, Part V of House Bill 1029 requires the State Board of Elections to formally report to the General Assembly absentee ballot problems in the last few years. There is no foreseeable reason that report won’t be made public,” Lewis said in an email to PolitiFact. “Secondly, Section 4.9 requires additional information regarding absentee ballots to be transmitted to the State Board, which traditionally makes all of this information public.”

A different kind of investigation

So how does the law affect campaign finance violations?

Previously, the elections board has confirmed the existence of campaign finance investigations, The N&O reported. Under the new law, however, an investigation might only become widely known if charges are filed or the person making the accusation goes public.

Robert Howard, a spokesman for the N.C. Democratic Party, believes the 9th district investigation could reveal campaign finance violations.

“Based on materials released by the State Board of Elections and sworn statements from residents in NC-09, there is clear reason to believe (Bladen County political operative) McCrae Dowless and others may have committed campaign finance violations in addition to operating an illegal ballot harvesting scheme,” Howard said in an email. “This year, the NCGOP, the Harris campaign, and Red Dome Group either contracted or sub-contracted with Dowless who then ran a paid-ballot harvesting operation, often paying employees in cash.”

He continued: “If an investigation like NC09 involved campaign finance violations and a separate violation (such as, in this instance, illegal ballot harvesting), investigators who are forced by this law to keep the campaign finance violation confidential may be forced to keep the full investigation confidential as well.”

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An email to PolitiFact from Robert Howard, spokesman for the N.C. Democratic Party.

Howard has a point. Materials disclosed by the state elections board allude to potential financial violations. But, while it’s true that the board could find campaign finance violations as part of its probe, payoff questions aren’t the stated holdup in the District 9 race.

In a Nov. 30 press release, the board has said it’s reviewing “irregularities and fraudulent activities related to absentee by-mail voting and potentially other matters in the 9th Congressional District contest.”

Regardless of what those “other matters” may turn out to be, the NC Democratic Party’s tweet gives the impression that the bill obscures election fraud investigations — which it doesn’t.

PolitiFact ruling

The N.C. Democratic Party tweeted that legislators supported a provision “that’ll make investigations like #NC09 less transparent.” The bill, which is now law, potentially conceals allegations of campaign finance violations. But it doesn’t affect the process for disclosing information related to election fraud investigations. We rate this Mostly False.

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This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide.

Follow more of our reporting on The North Carolina election fraud investigation

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Paul “Andy” Specht reports on North Carolina leaders and state politics for The News & Observer and PolitiFact. Specht previously covered Raleigh City Hall and town governments around the Triangle. He’s a Raleigh native who graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Contact him at aspecht@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4870.
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