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RALEIGH — A bitter war of words over changes to election rules approved Tuesday by the State Board of Elections is spreading toward the nation’s capital.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican, said Thursday he has sent an letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
“The letter requests Attorney General Barr immediately investigate recent actions by the North Carolina State Board of Elections and (state) Attorney General Josh Stein that will undermine the integrity of our November elections,” reads a state by Forest, who is running against incumbent Democrat Roy Cooper in the 2020 gubernatorial race.
The political fight over a settlement reached by the state Elections Board and plaintiffs in a legal challenge to election rules also has gained the attention of at least one congressman from North Carolina. Rep. Dan Bishop, blasted the settlement, which he says nullifies state laws that prohibit ballot harvesting and requires timely completion of the upcoming election.
“Clever and unethical lawyers like Attorney General Josh Stein and Gov. Roy Cooper have long known that collusive litigation settlements can be used to circumvent the legislature and usurp duly enacted laws. That is the trick they pulled yesterday,” the Republican who represents N.C. District 9 said Wednesday.
The settlement arose from the case NC Alliance for Retired Americans v. NC State Board of Elections and Phil Berger and Tim Moore. And the settlement’s terms aren’t written in legal stone yet. It must be approved by Wake Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins. The hearing is set for Oct. 2.
In brief, the settlement says voters can correct problems with witness information on their absentee ballots without filling out an entirely new ballot. Instead they can sign an affidavit confirming their identity. The changes also allow six more days for officials to receive mailed absentee ballots, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. If approved, it also would allow absentee ballots to be handed in at early in-person voting sites when they open next month.
Republican lawmakers claim the settlement was an act of collusion perpetrated by the Democratic Alliance and the state Elections Board, which is a defendant in the case. The settlement was reached without the knowledge or consent of the other defendants, according GOP lawmakers and officials.
State Board of Elections members have said the settlement was reached because they were worried that without a settlement they risked having broader voter security protections being overturned in court.
An almost immediate effect of the settlement was the resignation Wednesday by the two Republican members of the five-person state Elections Board.
State Board spokesman Patrick Gannon acknowledged the letters from members David Black and Ken Raymond were received Wednesday evening.
“We appreciate their service to the State Board, particularly the knowledge and perspective they provided from their years of service as members of county boards of elections,” Gannon wrote in a statement.
As for the settlement, Gannon said it was a unanimous agreement of the board members reached after they were thoroughly briefed by agency attorneys and litigation counsel before and during this past week’s closed-session meeting.
“The agency’s legal staff, who are civil servants, provide thorough legal memos to the board prior to every board meeting and answer any questions board members have about matters that come before the board,” Gannon said.
Both Black and Raymond say they were deceived.
“In particular, the recent memo outlining the new absentee ballot ‘cure’ for the witness requirement. It was not my understanding that the cure would simply mean an affidavit, or cure document, would be sent to the voter for a confirmation that this ballot was their own. No further information but a signature by the voter affirming the ballot was theirs would be required. My understanding was the witness requirement would stay as it is currently with the exception that only one witness signature would be required,” Black wrote in his resignation letter.
Raymond wrote in his letter that AG Stein did not tell Elections Board members that many of the concessions made in the settlement already have been denied in a prior case by a federal judge and another case by a state court three-judge panel.
“Secondly, we were led to believe that refusal to make a deal that included the extension of mailin absentee ballots, past the legal acceptance date, would also result in the elimination of the onewitness requirement for residents voting absentee by mail.
“Additionally, we were led to believe the effective administration of the election itself rested upon a settlement. And if a judicial order were issued as voters cast their ballots, the effective administration of the election would be impossible,” Raymond’s letter reads in part.
State Republican Party leaders say the resignations of Black and Raymond were the results of “the bullying and deceitful tactics” deployed by Gov. Cooper’s partisan election board and Attorney General Stein’s office.
“Cooper, Stein and the election board are attempting to rewrite North Carolina election law. This unconstitutional attempt to go around the democratic process seeks to expand the statutory absentee ballot deadline, subverts the witness requirements approved in the Bipartisan Elections Act of 2020, rewrites the definition of postmark and weakens protections against ballot harvesting,” a statement from the NCGOP reads in part.
North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin suggested Thursday that the resignations were a coordinated stunt, especially when given how swiftly Republican politicians are trying to take advantage of the situation.
“With 40 days until this election and record absentee voting already underway, Republicans know their grip on power in Raleigh is tenuous at best,” Goodwin said. “Clearly they fear the verdict of the voters and will stop at nothing — not even lying and sowing distrust in our election process — to cling to power. There have been many shameful moments for the NC GOP in the last decade, but waging an all-out assault on the integrity of our elections is a new low.”
Phil Berger, president pro tem of the N.C. Senate, on Thursday supported the claims of deceit made by Black and Raymond. He also pushed the collusion allegation, saying that even though the Board of Elections and the legislature are co-defendants in the lawsuit, the Elections Board “secretly negotiated” with the plaintiffs to rewrite the law to make absentee ballot fraud easier. The legislature knew nothing about the settlement until it was submitted to the judge, he said.
“Board of Elections Democrats have repeatedly tried to enact these policies for months. They lost when the legislature rejected them almost unanimously; they lost when a federal judge rejected them; they lost when a state court rejected them,” Berger said. “Now they’ve resorted to deceit and trickery by withholding key information from Republicans and secretly negotiating with Democratic plaintiffs to produce a collusive settlement that enables a repeat of absentee ballot fraud such as occurred in the 9th Congressional District in 2018.”
State House Speaker Tim Moore said it was an attempt to circumvent procedural due process in state government that gives the appearance that Democrats are taking official government actions to influence the election in their favor.
“These resignations raise serious questions about the integrity of the Cooper-controlled State Board of Elections, Josh Stein’s Department of Justice, and the circumstances of how this collusive settlement was put forward,” Moore said Thursday.
The House Democratic leader pushed back Thursday.
“The Republican tirade against voting rights has reached an unconscionable level. Tim Moore and North Carolina Republicans have made it their mission to unravel voting rights for decades but undermining the legitimacy of our elections sinks to a new low,” Rep. Darren Jackson said. “This proves once again that the North Carolina Republican Party has forgone any semblance of patriotism or respect for our democracy.”
Reach T.C. Hunter via email at [email protected] or by calling 910-816-1974.