RALEIGH — A fight over vote-counting that stretched beyond Election Day offers a preview of how Republicans may seek to re-do North Carolina’s ballot-access laws in 2017.
Earlier this month, Gov. Pat McCrory conceded his narrow loss to Democrat Roy Cooper several weeks after the election. His concession followed a protracted debate over how ballots were cast, though the tug-of-war has implications beyond the election cycle.
North Carolina voting rights activists say little or no evidence of fraud has been found despite weeks spent reviewing formal complaints.
But on Wednesday, the conservative-leaning Civitas Institute announced that it has formally requested information from six county elections boards and the state that could serve as evidence for changing voting laws at the General Assembly or as the basis for legal action. The move follows the group’s post-election lawsuit, later withdrawn, that argued that the same-day voter registration process is flawed.
“We need to change the way we verify voters in this state,” Civitas President Francis De Luca said in a phone interview.
Separately, in the weeks after the election, Republicans lodged protests in half the state’s 100 counties that ballots by felons, dead people or those who voted in another state should be thrown out. But despite nearly three weeks of looking for evidence, Republican-led state and county elections boards dismissed virtually every complaint.
Senate leader Phil Berger has indicated elections laws could be re-examined during the next legislative session, saying this election raised concerns about the “potential for fraud.”
“We will work with Gov.-elect Cooper to address these problems and to make certain voters have confidence in the outcome of future elections,” the Republican said earlier this month.
However, voting rights activists say the dismissal of nearly all the Republican voting complaints shows fraud is virtually nonexistent. An analysis by Democracy North Carolina found that nearly half of the 43 people accused statewide of voting despite felony restrictions were actually eligible, including some cases of mistaken identity.
Top state Republican Party attorney Tom Stark, who forced a partial recount in Durham County, said he has concerns despite McCrory’s concession. He said elections boards have limited resources — and time — to probe ineligible voters unless there’s glaring evidence of widespread fraud.
“Fraud cases take a long time to develop. I’m not saying there’s fraud, there’s just an over-inclusiveness, mistakes made,” he said.
The Rev. William Barber, president of North Carolina’s NAACP, says the efforts are aimed at suppressing minorities who tend to vote for Democrats.
“This is really a battle to try to stop the changing demographics — white and black and brown people coming together and voting in a progressive manner,” he said.
The lawsuit by Civitas argued the same-day registration process doesn’t allow enough time to verify a voter’s eligibility. North Carolina law allows people to register and cast a ballot on the same day during early voting if they can show documents proving where they live. Civitas argued a mailing procedure for double-checking addresses takes a month, a time period stretching past vote canvassing.
Civitas withdrew the lawsuit last week, shifting its efforts to the new requests for information on how county boards maintain their voter rolls. A draft of the letter sent last week to state officials, provided by De Luca, requests more than a dozen records related to same-day registration and other aspects of maintaining voter rolls. The letter says federal law requires the information be available for public inspection. Requests were also sent to Bladen, Buncombe, Durham, Pasquotank, Wake and Watauga counties.
De Luca said the information could be used to ask state officials to change their guidelines, seek changes through the legislature or provide the basis for a federal lawsuit.
“The first step is, we’ve got to get the information. And that is not a foregone conclusion. The state board and some of the local boards, not all, have been very resistant to providing detailed information like this,” he said. “By getting this information you’re kind of making them open up how they do things.”