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The North Carolina GOP Has a New Suppression Tactic: Voter Defamation

As they challenge the results of a governor’s race, the state's Republicans lay the groundwork for a Trump-era assault on voting rights.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

My neighbor Lucia Foster was surprised when I emailed her on November 18. “Are you aware,” I asked, “that your name is on one of the election protest petitions?”

Foster was raised to take voting seriously. She grew up in both Bangkok, Thailand, where her parents worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill. “I was aware, from a young age, of how government works,” she says. “And I saw the impact of elections on foreign aid overseas.” Now 41, Foster has voted her entire adult life—she’s a Democrat—and this year moved her registration to Durham, North Carolina. When she’s not working as a clinical-trials specialist, she teaches drama at a theater company with a social-justice bent.

Now, to her befuddlement, Foster was seeing her name on a list of suspicious voters. Supporters of North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican seeking a second term, had launched an all-out campaign to question the legitimacy of a contest that he appeared to be losing to Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper. As of Thursday evening, Cooper’s lead was 10,267 votes out of 4.6 million cast, though no winner has been declared.

Questioning election integrity has been big news nationally, of course: Donald Trump has been espousing false claims of rampant voter fraud and even charging, without evidence, that “millions of people” voted illegally in the presidential race. This is a recurrent trope here in North Carolina, which has been a laboratory for attacks on voting rights. What happened to my neighbor shows how the fraud narrative plays out on the ground—and it may be a preview of what voters around the country can expect under President Trump.

Part of the North Carolina GOP’s strategy has been disputing the honesty of individual voters, including two who live on my street. John Posthill, a volunteer for the McCrory campaign, filed four petitions in Durham alleging various irregularities. One petition claimed that 17 Durhamites, including Foster, were “known to have voted in multiple states,” which in North Carolina would be a felony. “I certainly did not vote in more than one state,” Foster wrote back to me. (Election officials in Kent County, Maryland, where she used to live, confirm that she did not vote there during the general election.)

When I asked Posthill where he got his information, he responded, “I am in a situation where talking to the press right now seems like an unwise idea.”

This week, sitting on her front porch, Foster told me what it was like to be accused of voter fraud. “I was frustrated because, although I appreciate you reaching out to me, I shouldn’t have had to find out that way,” she said. After reading my email, Foster had paid the county elections board a visit—and discovered, when she arrived, that it was minutes away from discussing Posthill’s protests. “I would have expected, if there was something that is calling my integrity into question, that I would have had ample chance to defend myself,” she said.

The county board rejected the protest that named Foster. Still, what happened in my neighborhood was not an isolated case involving one overzealous volunteer. McCrory supporters have disputed the results in about half the state’s 100 counties, often with false claims of illegal voting. Some voters were accused, incorrectly, of casting ballots while serving felony sentences. Others, like Foster, were alleged to have voted in two states. (The alleged double voters included a 101-year-old World War II veteran living in a Greensboro retirement home.)

“We were wrong,” Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina GOP, told me about some of his party’s accusations. But he called it “an unreasonable standard” to demand absolute proof of fraud before leveling a claim against a voter.

It’s hard to watch the current challenges, accompanied by GOP rhetoric about “massive” illegalities, without believing this strategy is about more than the McCrory-Cooper race, which the Republican is all but sure to lose in the end. Instead, the Republicans are beating the bushes for any evidence of “fraud” they can point to as a rationale for newly restrictive voting rules. Since taking control of the state legislature in 2011 and the governor’s office in 2013, North Carolina Republicans have used every tool in their box—redistricting, legislation, administrative action, litigation, voter challenges, and PR campaigns —to keep Democrats away from the polls, or dilute their influence, in this swing state. Now comes the next step: declaring, as Woodhouse did during our interview, that North Carolina’s expansive voting laws created “havoc and chaos” this year, which require remedying by the state legislature or the U.S. Supreme Court. New limits on ballot access would “restore confidence” in the system, Woodhouse told me—even as he admitted the distrust might be unwarranted. “Whether there’s widespread voter fraud or not,” he said, “the people believe there is.”

A new voting-rights crackdown in North Carolina would get a sympathetic reception in the Trump administration. Trump’s plan to tap Jeff Sessions—who in the ’80s prosecuted civil-rights workers for helping elderly and illiterate voters fill out their ballots—as his attorney general suggests that the Justice Department will scale back its enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Trump is also likely to promote state voter-roll purges and nominate a Supreme Court justice hostile to voting rights. Restricting ballot access could become a federal-state partnership, with North Carolina in the forefront.

Starting in 2000, when it was under Democratic control, North Carolina’s legislature passed a series of reforms that transformed it from a voting-rights backwater to a national leader in ballot access. Counties could hold up to 17 days of early voting, including Sundays, when African-American churches transport “souls to the polls.” Citizens could vote on the same day they register. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds could preregister at school or the DMV, so they’d be ready to vote when they turned eighteen. Voters who showed up at the wrong precincts—because of misinformation, say, or transportation problems—could cast partial ballots.

The impact of these laws was palpable: African-American turnout spiked, surpassing white turnout in the 2008 general election and paving Barack Obama’s path to become the first Democratic presidential contender to carry the state since 1976. Young adults began voting in unprecedented numbers too. This year, North Carolina ranked 13th in turnout among voting-eligible adults, up from 43rd in 1996, according to the United States Elections Project at George Mason University.

An enlivened and more diverse electorate couldn’t stop the Tea Party backlash that swept the country in 2010. With help from the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP), the GOP won control over both chambers of the North Carolina legislature, and re-drew their own district lines to solidify their hold. They then bided their time until 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling cleared the way for the state to change voting procedures without federal approval.

With the federal yoke lifted, lawmakers promptly overhauled the state’s election laws to curb the influence of those Obama voters. They shortened early voting and abolished youth preregistration, same-day registration, and out-of-precinct voting. They also imposed a strict voter-ID requirement that didn’t recognize student-ID cards, even from state universities.

Last summer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit blocked much of the overhaul, saying that it targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Republicans attempted a partial end run by asking local election boards—all controlled by the GOP—to pare back early voting county-by-county. “Call your Republican election board members and remind them that as partisan Republican appointees they have [a] duty to consider Republican points of view,” Woodhouse wrote to party officials.

Election Night in North Carolina, like in most of the country, was mostly a Republican rout. Voters returned Richard Burr to the U.S. Senate, gave their 15 electoral votes to Donald Trump, and reaffirmed the GOP’s lock on both legislative chambers. But, in the governor’s race, Democrat Cooper ended the night ahead. McCrory, the incumbent, had lost favor with many voters by signing House Bill 2, a measure that—among several anti-labor and anti-LGBT provisions—dictates how transgender people may use public restrooms. The national blowback to House Bill 2 has cost the state jobs, conventions, and championship games.

The GOP’s response to Cooper’s apparent victory felt like that moment at the end of a fireworks show when all the leftover rockets are set off in one glorious blaze. There were dozens of challenges to local results. There were accusations of illegal voting, some drawn from a commercial database linked to the Republican National Committee and the Koch brothers. “The worst part of all of this is defaming random new residents of North Carolina, accusing them of felonies,” says election-law expert Gerry Cohen, former special counsel to the state legislature. “Or randomly defaming people who committed misdemeanors, or finished their sentences 30 years ago, or decorated veterans in nursing homes that are 101 years old. What planet is this?”

Meanwhile, Republicans demanded a recount of 90,000 votes in Durham County, a Democratic stronghold that suffered computer problems on Election Day. (Despite the Durham election board’s confidence that the votes were tallied correctly, on Wednesday the state Board of Elections, splitting along party lines, ordered the recount.) And Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank based in Raleigh, filed a lawsuit seeking to delay the counting of ballots of new voters who used same-day registration. When the state board asked for outside counsel to handle the Civitas case, Governor McCrory blocked its choice of attorneys.

Along with the legal and administrative wrangling came the verbal offensive. “Now we know why Roy Cooper fought so hard against voter ID and other efforts to combat voter fraud as attorney general,” McCrory campaign manager Russell Peck said two weeks ago. “With each passing day, we discover more and more cases of voting fraud and irregularities.” Republicans were emboldened by problems in rural Bladen County, where volunteers for a group that helps African-American voters failed to sign absentee ballots they helped fill out. McCrory, quoting a protest petition, claimed a “massive scheme to run an absentee ballot mill.” Woodhouse, the state party director, went further. “Somebody is going to prison,” he told me. “And should.” (Woodhouse and others claim, without documentation, that the problem extends beyond Bladen. Posthill, in one protest, alleged an “absentee ballot mill” in Durham but cited no hard evidence.)

Cohen, the election-law expert, says that Republicans might be looking past the 2016 elections and instead laying the groundwork for a renewed attack on voting rights. “There’s one theory that all of these challenges really have nothing to do with the governor’s race, but they wanted to show there was fraud—so they can come to the federal court and say, ‘See, it wasn’t surgically targeting black people. Look at all this fraud.’ Or go to the legislature and say, ‘We need further reforms.’”

Woodhouse readily acknowledges that his party will be turning to the high court and the legislature to rectify what he calls the “systematic failures” of this year’s election. (He’s particularly eager to eliminate out-of-precinct voting, which he says is time-consuming to tabulate. African Americans are more likely than whites to cast ballots outside their own precincts.) But Cohen says the real “monumental failure” of this election was the Republicans’ “massive defamation campaign of false accusations.”

One of the defamed, my neighbor Foster, says the experience has energized her to become more politically active. “I don’t appreciate that I’m a pawn in this particular game,” she says. Foster thinks about her parents and aunt, who came down to North Carolina this fall to campaign for Democrats. “What an odd opposite,” she says. “My family invested time and energy to advocate for what they believe. Folks on the other side of the aisle, instead of advocating for their positions, are undermining people’s votes and calling ‘fire’ over the issue of fraud when there isn’t.”