State Politics

508 ineligible voters cast ballots in 2016, according to NC elections agency report

cseward@newsobserver.com

An investigation by the N.C. Board of Elections has found that 508 voters who cast ballots last November weren’t eligible to vote – and the vast majority of them were felons serving active sentences.

The State Board of Elections released the audit report Friday in response to public records requests and a request from members of Congress. The report says that 441 voters appear to have been serving active felony sentences on Election Day – many of them on probation. Convicted felons can vote in North Carolina only after completing their sentences, including any probation and parole.

In addition, the investigation found 41 non-citizens who cast ballots, 24 voters who voted twice and two people who falsely voted using the name of a family member who’d recently died.

“It is important to recognize that suspected cases of ineligible voters casting ballots and/or committing fraud represent a tiny fraction” of the 4.8 million voters who participated, the report says.

The improper votes identified in the report won’t be removed from last year’s official vote tallies, but the report says that “no races – statewide or local – would have had a different outcome than the one already certified” if the improper votes were removed.

The agency stresses that the incidents documented in the report aren’t necessarily cases of voter fraud, because there may not be evidence the voters knew they were committing a crime. The findings in the report have been provided to district attorneys, and it will be up to prosecutors to decide if the ineligible voters will face criminal charges.

“All numbers are subject to change based on ultimate investigative findings,” the report says.

Prosecutors in Catawba County have already decided not to charge a woman who impersonated her dead mother at the polls.

That woman – whose name has been redacted in the report – told investigators in an email that her 89-year-old mother was a “tremendous Donald Trump fan” who died on Oct. 26 before she could vote for her preferred presidential candidate.

The day before she died, she told her daughter “if anything happens, you have my power of attorney and you be sure to vote for Donald Trump for me,” the daughter said in the email. The daughter then went to a polling place and used her mother’s name to cast a ballot.

“Please understand that my actions were in no way intended to be fraudulent but were done during my grief and an effort to honor my mother’s last request,” the daughter told investigators in an email.

A letter from the district attorney’s office in Catawba County, included in the audit report, said prosecutors will not charge the woman because she believed the vote “was not a fraudulent act,” she did not have a prior criminal record, and the mother was alive during part of the absentee voting period.

The only other case of voter impersonation that the audit found involved a similar situation in which a wife signed an absentee ballot using the name of her husband, who had just died after filling out a ballot that was rejected because it was incomplete.

With the overwhelming majority of improper votes in the audit coming from active felons, state election officials say they’ll improve records checks designed to ensure active felons don’t get registered to vote.

They’ll also add more education efforts to make sure active felons know that their right to vote isn’t restored until their sentence is complete. Many of the ineligible voters contacted in the investigation said they thought they were able to vote after leaving prison.

Voter registration forms will now include a box that voters must check to state they have completed any felony sentence they received.

The investigation’s review of immigration records found 41 voters who admitted to investigators that they are not U.S. citizens. At the time of the report, 61 additional suspected non-citizens had not responded to investigators’ request to provide documentation proving their citizenship. All are legal residents with green cards.

“Interviews and evidence show that some non-citizens were misinformed about the law by individuals conducting voter registration drives or, in at least one documented case, by a local precinct official,” the report says.

The non-citizen voters are from 28 different countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Israel and Mexico.

The final category of ineligible voters in the investigation were voters who cast ballots in more than one North Carolina county – 24 voters total. Most of them had recently moved and their old voter registration hadn’t been canceled, often because election workers couldn’t match their names to the old record.

Some of those double voters “claim their property ownership in multiple jurisdictions should allow them to vote in each, and others brush past the law to support their candidate by any means necessary,” according to the report.

The 508 ineligible voters identified in the report are spread across the state, with 36 in Wake County, 34 in Durham and two in Orange. The report says that 64 percent were registered Democrats, 18 percent were registered Republicans and the rest were either unaffiliated or Libertarians.

The investigation found no evidence of “ballot stuffing” or equipment tampering in the November election, despite concerns about possible problems in counting ballots in Durham County. The report does not include any findings related to potentially fraudulent absentee ballots in Bladen County, because that information has been turned over to federal prosecutors.

The agency’s investigation was not prompted by allegations of voter fraud made last fall by Republicans during a close race for governor. The GOP’s complaints had claimed that active felons and dead people voted, and that some voters cast ballots in multiple states.

The State Board of Elections threw out the complaints because they were filed too late in the process. Many of the people listed in the complaints were wrongly accused – cases of mistaken identity.

The NCGOP says the new audit report shows its “efforts are now vindicated.”

“We are dismayed but not surprised by this report confirming unlawful voting during the 2016 elections,” NCGOP chairman Robin Hayes said in a news release. “These people should be investigated and criminally prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We remain committed to seeing that every eligible citizen can vote and voter fraud is investigated, prosecuted and stopped.”

But N.C. Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said the report confirms “that our elections system is reliable and secure – with only scattered instances of voter fraud among the millions of ballots cast each year.”

Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, which advocates for increased access to voting, said the State Board of Elections report doesn’t show a need for any new election laws.

“It shouldn’t be used to fan the hysterical claims of voter fraud ... nor should it be used to rationalize barriers to voting,” he said.

Hall said the confusion about voting rights for people on probation proves that North Carolina should join 20 other states that restore voting rights as soon as prison sentences are complete.

“We want them to be reintegrated into society, and what better way to do that than encourage them to be active citizens?” he said.

Hall called on prosecutors considering charges against ineligible voters to carefully consider the voters’ motives.

“They need to do it in a balanced, nondiscriminatory way,” he said. “Arbitrary enforcement … has a chilling effect on honest voters who are not completely confident in what the rules are.”

Earlier this week, Democracy NC called for a criminal investigation into whether former Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign and the NCGOP conspired last year to falsely accuse hundreds of voters of fraud. Hall said state elections officials must take steps to ensure no eligible voters are denied their rights based on faulty data.

The NCGOP, however, argues that groups like Democracy NC “have been nothing short of malicious towards the people who wanted to come forward and report instances of voter fraud.”

“Gov. (Roy) Cooper should immediately tell these groups to ‘call off the dogs’ in light of this damning report,” Friday’s NCGOP news release said.

While just one of the improper votes would likely have been prevented by a photo ID requirement – which was struck down by a federal court last year – Senate leader Phil Berger called Friday for the law to be restored.

“If even one fraudulently cast ballot effectively disenfranchises a legitimate voter, then that is one too many, and that’s why we continue to support common sense policies like voter ID that improve voter confidence,” he said in a news release.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

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