The Persistent Voter Fraud Myth
Did McCrory campaign break the law in post-election protests?
NINE DAYS after the 2016 election, when the solidity of Democrat Roy Cooper’s victory over incumbent Republican Pat McCrory in the North Carolina governor’s race was still in doubt, the Stokes County Board of Elections received an intriguing email from a law firm in Virginia.
The firm was representing the McCrory campaign, and attached to the email was an election protest from Susan McBride, a Stokes County Republican activist. McBride claimed that a man named Larry G. Smith had cast a ballot that was invalid because Smith was serving a felony sentence; North Carolina prohibits voting by active felons, including those on probation or parole. An associate with the firm, Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky, later sent the county elections director a link to the N.C. Department of Corrections website and a note: “This is the guy.”
It took the elections director, Jason Perry, little time to determine that Larry G. Smith was not the guy. The link led to a page with information about a Larry D. Smith, a convicted felon from Wilkes County, some 80 miles west. Perry emailed the associate, who thanked him. But the firm didn’t drop the protest. Four days later, during a meeting of the county elections board, the chairman mentioned that he knew Larry G. Smith, and that he wasn’t a felon. McBride attended the meeting but offered no further information. The Republican-majority board dismissed the protest.
Two days later, Larry G. Smith told a News & Observer reporter that he was happy “everything’s straightened out,” and added, “The sad part of it is, I voted for McCrory.”
Time and again over the last 20 years, Republicans have alleged widespread in-person voter fraud that benefits Democrats, and time and again, investigations have turned up the same thing: scattered examples of small numbers of invalid ballots cast by ineligible voters and no evidence of any widespread, coordinated fraud.
Last week, the North Carolina State Board of Elections released a post-election report on the 2016 election, which uncovered an inconsequential number of irregularities: in an election in which 4.8 million people voted, 441 ballots were cast by suspected active felons, many of them probationers confused about their eligibility; 41 by non-citizens; 24 in which people double-voted (administrative errors may be to blame); and two cases of in-person voter impersonation.
In-person fraud—someone showing up at a polling place and trying to vote by pretending to be someone else—is the supposedly rampant threat to electoral integrity that compelled the General Assembly to pass North Carolina’s voter ID law four years ago, a law since struck down by a federal appeals court for deliberately trying to restrict black voters, who tend to vote Democratic, from exercising their right to the franchise. The Board of Elections stated its overall conclusion clearly, in bold italics in the text: “Even assuming all ineligible ballots identified in this report were cast for the prevailing candidate, no races—statewide or local—would have had a different outcome than the one already certified by the state.”
That’s not surprising or unusual. But what the McCrory campaign may have done in the weeks after the election takes the myth of widespread voter fraud to another plane. The story above comes from another report last week, this one by the Durham-based organization Democracy North Carolina. The group refers to itself as nonpartisan, but it clearly occupies space on the left side of the political spectrum, and people ought to view its conclusions with that in mind.
Still, the report’s specific allegations are detailed and convincing enough to take seriously. The organization calls for a state or federal criminal investigation into what it describes as an attempt by the McCrory campaign and state GOP “to disrupt, and potentially corrupt, the elections process with what amounted to fraudulent charges of voter fraud.” By late November, Democracy North Carolina says, “the McCrory-NCGOP team had charged about 600 voters in 37 counties with committing fraud or casting suspect absentee ballots—but despite an avalanche of legal filings and the constant drumbeat of ‘serious voter fraud,’ nearly all the accusations proved to be false.”
The state GOP responded by alleging that the Democracy North Carolina report actually confirms “significant voter fraud in NC”; Chairman Robin Hayes issued a statement that read, in part, “North Carolina Democrats have been nothing short of malicious towards the people who wanted to come forward and report instances of voter fraud—by means of threatening, harassing and suing them. Governor Cooper should immediately tell these groups to ‘call off the dogs’ in light of this damning report.”
The party didn’t address the report’s specific allegations, and Democracy North Carolina Executive Director Bob Hall denies that his organization harassed or threatened anyone. In an interview with WFAE in Charlotte, Hall said his group interviewed several local Republicans who signed election protests without fully understanding what they were doing. “These are local Republicans who were asked by the Republican Party or by the McCrory campaign to sign these protests, and many of them, they just wanted to help the governor,” Hall said. “And then when they realized they were being asked to show some evidence, they didn’t have any. They described themselves as ‘left holding the bag,’ or ‘being hung out to dry.’”
Law enforcement will have to sort out whether North Carolina Republicans or the McCrory campaign broke any laws, or whether their actions after November 8 just reflected an aggressive effort to leave nothing to chance in a close election. But even impartial observers have some solid reasons to doubt Republican innocence.
After McCrory conceded on December 5, legislative Republicans quickly stripped incoming Governor Cooper of many of his statutory powers, suggesting a party not given to strict adherence to accepted norms. The state Elections Board report undermines Hayes’ claim of “significant voter fraud.” And if you believe the Stokes County story of the Larry Smiths, in which anyone could confirm with a few clicks that Susan McBride was talking about the wrong guy, you face an even more sinister prospect: that McCrory and North Carolina Republicans knew they didn’t have a case of widespread voter fraud but wanted to kick up enough dust to obscure the emptiness of their claims.