Elections

Republicans claim 43 voters are ineligible felons. Many of them aren’t.

Larry Smith got an odd phone call last week: Someone had filed to throw out his vote, claiming he was a felon serving an active sentence.

Smith, who lives in Stokes County, is no felon. But he was one of 43 people named as a felons ineligible to vote in election complaints filed by Republicans with help from Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign – part of an effort to claim the election results were marred by voter fraud.

The nonprofit Democracy North Carolina, which has urged McCrory to halt the protests, analyzed the names this week. The group found that 18 of them – nearly half – were wrongfully accused of being felons ineligible to vote. Four of them were confused with criminals who happen to have the same name, while others are on probation for misdemeanor convictions like drunk driving.

People convicted of misdemeanors do not lose their voting rights, and felons are ineligible to vote only while in prison, on probation or on parole.

“Honest voters are being maligned by sloppy research – some might even say gross negligence – just to create the impression that widespread fraud has ruined an election,” Democracy North Carolina executive director Bob Hall said. “It’s shameful and it should stop.”

Some of the voters have already been cleared by Republican-led county election boards, which quickly dismissed the inaccurate complaints. At least one vote – in Wake County – was rejected because elections officials determined the voter named was an ineligible felon.

The Stokes County Board of Elections threw out the complaint about Smith on Monday. Elections director Jason Perry said the complaint – filed by Susan McBride, a member of the local Republican Party – had mistakenly matched Smith with a felon who shares the same first and last name and date of birth.

“Additional evidence – including different middle names for the Stokes County voter and for the felon – demonstrated that it was mistaken identity,” Perry said.

Smith said he’s glad to know that “everything’s straightened out.”

“The sad part of it is I voted for McCrory,” he added.

McBride did not return a phone call and email seeking comment.

Down the road from Smith in Winston-Salem, Barron McCollum got a similar notice that his vote had been challenged. McCollum does have a criminal record, which is easy to find in a public online database maintained by the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

He was convicted of a felony back in 1986 and long ago got his voting rights back after completing his sentence. His only recent conviction was a misdemeanor, which doesn’t affect his right to vote.

McCollum says the accusation was troubling. “They should at least find out if I’m still considered a felon instead of taking it for granted,” he said.

McCollum found out about the effort to cancel his vote when he got a notice in the mail Tuesday morning around 10 a.m. It told him to attend a Forsyth County Board of Elections meeting that had happened an hour earlier.

Having missed the meeting, he called the elections office. “The lady that answered the phone told me they had dismissed the accusation,” he said.

The complaint against McCollum came from Forsyth County Republican Party vice-chairwoman Linda Petrou, who also got the hearing notice too late. She said she learned about the elections board meeting after her complaints had been dismissed.

Petrou she’s not worried that the public accusation might have harmed McCollum’s reputation. “I don’t think anybody pays attention to what they’re doing,” she said of the elections board. “If they’re eligible, then good, I’m happy. I’m glad they voted.”

Petrou’s complaint also named a second voter who is an active felon currently on probation for a child sex crime, according to the Department of Public Safety database. The election board did not cancel that voter’s ballot because Petrou was not at the hearing to defend her complaint.

She filed two other election complaints. One listed two dead people who she says voted, and another said Forsyth elections officials may have made mistakes in counting votes.

“I don’t know that I necessarily would have gone into it in this detail as much if some lawyer friends of mine hadn’t approached me about” filing the complaints, she said, adding that she believes the lawyers might have been volunteers for the McCrory campaign.

She said she’s not sure if she’ll appeal the Forsyth board’s decision to the State Board of Elections, something the McCrory campaign has vowed to do. “It really concerns me when I see people who aren’t eligible to vote voting,” Petrou said. “If nothing else, this election has showed some of the problems with the way we vote.”

The News & Observer asked the McCrory campaign to comment on the false complaints about felons voting and explain where the data came from, but spokesman Ricky Diaz did not respond Wednesday.

On Wednesday, the N.C. Democratic Party repeated its demand that McCrory concede to Democrat Roy Cooper, who leads in the latest vote count by more than 7,000 votes. McCrory has already requested a recount.

The Republican election protests “have maligned innocent voters, questioned the integrity of their own Republican appointees, and spread false rumors,” Democratic Party spokesman Jamal Little said in a news release. Each county board of elections consists of two Republicans and one Democrat.

A State Board of Elections database indicates that the number of ineligible felons voting in this year’s election could be much higher than 43.

The agency’s information systems director, Marc Burris, found 339 voters when he searched a database that matches people who voted early or by absentee ballot with state corrections records showing felons serving an active sentence. That number does not include any ineligible felons who might have voted on Elections Day.

The elections agency generated the number by matching voters with criminal records using first and last names, dates of birth and driver’s license numbers, making it a more accurate search than the criteria Republicans appear to have used.

On Tuesday, election board members discussed how to handle the finding: Will ineligible felons’ ballots be tossed out automatically, or only if someone filed a formal protest to challenge their vote?

The board took no action Tuesday. It was noted that it is too late to make individual challenges of voters. A spokesman for the agency did not provide any additional details Wednesday afternoon.

Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed to this report

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

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