McCrory campaign request on election complaint review rejected – for now

State Board of Elections members Joshua Malcolm, left, and A. Grant Whitney Jr. during a meeting Thursday, September 8, 2016 at the State Board of Elections in Raleigh.
State Board of Elections members Joshua Malcolm, left, and A. Grant Whitney Jr. during a meeting Thursday, September 8, 2016 at the State Board of Elections in Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

The State Board of Elections on Sunday rejected a request from Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign to take over election protest reviews, instead setting a 10 a.m. Tuesday meeting to set guidelines for counties to address the complaints.

The McCrory campaign has been involved in filing dozens of elections protests regarding dead voters, felon voters, people voting twice and absentee ballot concerns – some of which were rejected by Republican-led county election boards on Friday. Campaign manager Russell Peck asked the state board to rule on all complaints.

County elections boards must rule on the complaints first before their decision can be appealed to the State Board of Elections. In a rare “emergency” meeting on Sunday, the state board didn’t rule out the possibility of reviewing election complaints – but it left the initial responsibility with county boards.

“It would be a mistake for this board to take up protests,” said board member Joshua Malcolm, a Democrat. “(Counties) need to make fact-finding decisions.”

Peck argued that his proposal would “prevent inconsistent results among the counties and facilitate a quicker resolution.”

But Bob Hall of the nonprofit Democracy North Carolina says the change would have the opposite effect. “I think this would delay it a lot if they took all of those protests and took charge of them,” Hall said Sunday. “The fact-finding can be done better at the local level.”

To determine whether a voter is eligible, election officials must review public records to confirm whether the voter died after casting an absentee ballot, is serving an active felony sentence or voted in another state.

The state board’s records show substantially fewer election complaints than the McCrory campaign initially announced would be filed last week. Asked Sunday whether complaint filings were missing or if some were dropped, McCrory campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz said, “The board may not have all of them yet from the counties, so you can expect more.”

Rhonda Amoroso, a Republican State Board of Elections member, said she found the complaints troubling. “It may appear to folks in the public that we have a systemic issue of voter fraud,” she said. “It puts a cloud over the integrity of the election process of North Carolina.”

The board did, however, take on a complaint filed in Bladen County involving a group that helped voters fill out absentee ballots but didn’t sign the required disclosure.

The election complaints come as the final ballots are counted in a tight governor’s race between McCrory and Democrat Roy Cooper, the state’s attorney general.

The latest tally on the State Board of Elections website has Cooper leading by about 6,600 votes, although the Cooper campaign said Saturday that its latest count shows the lead has grown to 7,900 votes as more votes are counted.

During the elections board meeting, Cooper issued a video statement, saying “we have won this race for governor” and that he’s “confident that once the results of the election are finalized, we will come out on top.”

“Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing with you my vision for moving North Carolina forward,” he added.

The McCrory campaign emailed supporters Sunday to say “the election is still in overtime,” asking for donations for its legal fund.

Missing DMV voter registrations

Also on Sunday’s meeting agenda was an update on voters who had to cast provisional ballots because they said they’d registered to vote at the DMV but didn’t appear in registration records.

State Board of Elections director Kim Strach announced Saturday that about 1,500 of those voters were eligible to vote. The voters visited the DMV between July 18, 2015, and this year’s registration deadline and said they registered to vote.

“As required by the court, you must treat these voters as registered at the address provided on their provisional application and count the ballot for all contests for which the voter is qualified,” Strach wrote to county election officials.

The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by several nonprofit groups. U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs ruled in October in favor of Democracy North Carolina, Action NC and the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute.

The groups argued that the DMV had failed to comply with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the “motor voter” law that requires states to offer voter registration at motor vehicle agencies and public assistance and disability offices.

Biggs found that the DMV was too slow in transferring voter registration records to the State Board of Elections and did not follow up with people who turned in blank registration forms but never said they didn’t want to register.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice praised the state’s decision to count 1,500 votes. “If it weren’t for community groups standing up for people being disenfranchised and the court intervening, those votes may have never been counted,” senior voting rights attorney Allison Riggs said. “While we applaud this action, we are looking into whether additional citizens who used the DMV are entitled to have their provisional ballots counted.”

Hall, whose group was among the plaintiffs, noted the Biggs’ ruling references the “summer of 2015” rather than a specific date. He said the state should also count provisional ballots from voters who said they’d registered during DMV visits between June 1, 2015, and July 18, 2015.

The addition of the 1,500 provisional ballots could boost McCrory’s vote total because the majority are from rural counties that often favor Republicans. The list of eligible provisional voters includes about 100 people from the urban counties of Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford and Durham.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter