State Politics

Democracy NC calls for criminal probe of NC GOP for unfounded voter fraud claims

A voter-rights organization hopes to persuade state and federal prosecutors to investigate whether former Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign and the state Republican Party conspired in late 2016 to falsely accuse hundreds of voters of fraud.

The organization, Democracy North Carolina, conducted a five-month investigation into about 600 protests filed after McCrory lost his bid for re-election to Democrat Roy Cooper.

Their findings are included in a 16-page report released Tuesday that Bob Hall, the watchdog group’s executive director, said would be sent to district attorneys in 23 counties and federal prosecutors in North Carolina.

“In the course of our investigation, we talked with dozens of people who have been harmed by the false accusations of voter fraud trumpeted by the McCrory campaign and the Republican Party and their publicity team,” Hall told reporters Tuesday. “They are the victims of what happens when outrageous claims of voter fraud are used as a weapon for political gain.”

Democracy NC workers also spoke with Republicans and elections officials and reviewed election-board meeting minutes and other public records. That research culminated in the organization’s call for a criminal investigation into “a possible conspiracy by the Pat McCrory re-election committee and the N.C. Republican Party to use fraudulent charges of voter fraud to harass and intimidate voters, deny them their right to vote, interfere with the elections process, and corrupt the results of the 2016 elections.”

Robin Hayes, chairman of the NCGOP, described the call for investigation as a “shameful and outrageous” attack.

“Their actions today were nothing short of voter and citizen intimidation,” Hayes said in a statement. “Citizens have rights, as prescribed by law, to make inquiries about potential voting irregularities. It is a disgusting attempt to bully everyday citizens out of their right to provide a check on our electoral system. As the report notes, instances of improper voting were found and proven.”

Of the 600 protests, 30 ballots were illegally cast or counted, according to the Democracy NC report.

And “importantly,” Isela Gutierrez, a Democracy NC associate researcher, said, “most of those were apparently cast by accident or in ignorance of voter laws” for people on probation. Gutierrez said there was not “an intent to cheat.”

Nearly all protests were prepared by attorneys with the firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky, based in Warrenton, Virginia, whose clients have reportedly included Republican strategist Karl Rove's American Crossroads organization and other GOP groups.

Disclosure reports on the state Board of Elections website show that the Pat McCrory Committee and Pat McCrory Committee Legal Defense Fund paid the firm $98,000 in late November and December.

Those attorneys did not follow up with the protests they submitted by appearing at the preliminary hearings, and local people who filed the protests were told they did not need to appear either, according to Democracy NC.

“The lack of follow up raises questions about the real purpose of filing a blitz of protests,” Gutierrez said. “Was it only a show to bolster the intense publicity about voter fraud tainting a fair election?”

Robert Chadwick Jr., a Wake County resident who was one of the people named in a protest petition, said Tuesday that he continues to be troubled by the experience.

Chadwick, 51, was named for his father, Robert Chadwick Sr., a 72-year-old Virginia resident. He believes the protest that accused him of voting in Virginia and North Carolina may have confused him with his father. He said he had no idea his vote had been questioned as suspicious until Hall told him.

Chadwick, who works with Family Resource Center South Atlantic in Raleigh, works with fathers who either are incarcerated or recently incarcerated. They often talk about restoring voting rights that have been taken away from prisoners.

“To be accused of cheating of something of this magnitude – it really, really hits home,” Chadwick said after the Democracy NC news conference. “Being able to vote — it’s a privilege, it’s a right.”

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Tuesday that she had not received the Democracy NC report yet, but planned to read it if she did and determine what actions, if any, she would take. In such situations, Freeman said, she would check in with the state Board of Elections about any investigations there.

The elections board has opened an investigation into the protest petitions filed before McCrory conceded to Cooper in December.

The legal team has proposed changes to official election protest forms, which have been redesigned to better shield eligible voters from unsubstantiated accusations, the board spokesman said.

Other changes suggested, but not yet adopted by the state board, could require a protester to swear, under the penalty of perjury, that the information on the protest is true and accurate. The suggested changes also would place the protester on notice that it is a felony to submit a fraudulent form and would make clear when a candidate, political party or organization has requested or financed the filing. If a protester is represented by an attorney, the form would require that attorney to file an addendum.

“Information from Democracy North Carolina will be added to our ongoing investigation into the protest matters following the general election,” the board stated in a statement issued after the news conference. “The file remains active and our work continues. Consistent with agency practice, any findings of wrongdoing are referred to appropriate prosecutorial agencies when warranted by the evidence.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer