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I Was Accused of Voter Fraud in North Carolina

Here's what it taught me about belonging and exclusion in America.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Just over three weeks after Election Day, I got a Google Alert. My name had appeared in the digital edition of my hometown’s daily newspaper. An article, the first of several on the subject in the following weeks, stated that the chairman of the Republican Party in Pasquotank County, where I had voted by mail-in absentee ballot, was attempting to invalidate my vote and 21 others by “challenging the residency of 22 voters who participated in last month’s election, claiming they are a ‘symptom of voter fraud’ that calls into question the outcome of the governor’s race.”

The governor’s race in question was North Carolina’s, and at the time I learned of the challenge to my voter eligibility, Pat McCrory had not yet conceded defeat. In fact, after losing to Roy Cooper on November 8 by a margin that has since surpassed 10,000 votes, McCrory hung on, demanding recounts, filing protests across the state, and alleging fraud in the form of votes cast by felons, by people who voted in multiple states, or in the name of deceased persons. McCrory, of course, also signed a controversial 2013 voter-ID law that a federal appeals court struck down this year due to “racially discriminatory intent.” (A number of the 22 voters challenged gave their address as Elizabeth City State University, a historically black college in my home county, more on which shortly.)

I initially found the challenge quite odd. I wasn’t a felon, hadn’t voted in another state, and hadn’t attempted to vote in someone else’s name. The GOP chairman behind the local challenge, Richard Gilbert, filed what is technically called an elections protest petition disputing my residency in the county. It’s true, I don’t reside in Pasquotank County. I voted by absentee ballot, something one does, by definition, when absent.

I’ve been a registered voter since 2002, and voted absentee while in college in North Carolina, in graduate school in Boston, while studying and teaching in a foreign country, and most recently while pursuing a doctorate in Chicago. I voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries while teaching English in Rövershagen, Germany. I used the event for a unit on the American political process (the witnesses who signed my ballot weren’t even U.S. citizens). Indeed, the same principle allows members of the military to vote from overseas. Regardless of where one temporarily resides, a voter can legally cast a ballot using the address of their domicile, defined in part and somewhat poetically as the place “to which…that person has the intention of returning.”

A hearing at the local board of elections the following Monday provided a bit more clarity. Gilbert had found the description of a literature course I taught last spring, as well as some student evaluations, which he used to claim that I was a full-time professor. By his account, I had established a permanent residence in Chicago, and was therefore voting illegally in North Carolina. But being referred to as “Professor Sterritt” by a student doesn’t make me a professor—if only that were the case. I’m actually a full-time student funded by a teaching assistantship, which carries a part-time appointment as an instructor.

In fact, I’m far from the first student whose voter eligibility Gilbert has called into question. In his own words recorded on the filed protest, he states:

On election day 2012, I successfully challenged 4 voters on residency. In April 2013, I successfully challenged 58 voters who voted in the 2012 election illegally. And now in Nov 2016, we have another 21 people who either voted or attempted to vote in Pasquotank County illegally.

It turns out the above voters were students at Elizabeth City State University, the historically black college at which Gilbert had also challenged 18 students in 2007, and failed. While it was claimed that certain students who lived in town couldn’t vote, it was also claimed that I couldn’t vote because I didn’t live in town. It’s important to note that Elizabeth City State University isn’t the only four-year school in Pasquotank County, though it is the only local school whose students’ voting rights have been subjected to legal challenges. Reporting in 2013, Rachel Maddow asked why: “Is it because one school is mostly black and the other one is mostly white? Is it because one school is bigger? Because one school is more conservative?”

The upshot of my first hearing was the scheduling of another hearing; I was obliged to engage legal counsel. I learned that a number of factors can support a claim to a domicile, though not all are strictly determinative. For example, if you are a college student who still maintains a room at your parents’ house, including personal property, this fact could be used to argue you are domiciled there. If your mother tosses your comic books and turns your childhood room into an office, this doesn’t preclude a claim, but it would then require other evidence. Do you come home between terms and during all the major holidays? Do you have a bank account in your hometown? Do you own property there? Were you born there, raised there, and/or did you go to high school there? These are all positive indicators, though they do not in and of themselves guarantee you the right to vote.

Holding a driver’s license issued by another state isn’t a deal breaker, but certainly doesn’t help. Registering to vote or actually voting in another county or state, however, forecloses the possibility of voting in your place of origin. In a way it’s akin to the reminder in U.S. passports that “you may lose your U.S. citizenship” by “serving in the armed forces of a foreign state.” Above all, a domicile rests on intent. Usually, your domicile remains the same until you’ve established a new one, even if you’ve moved. Establishing a new domicile involves an intention to remain somewhere indefinitely, in other words, that you’ve found a new home.

The argument was that I had been gone long enough to become disconnected, that my ties were insufficient. Legal grounds aside, what is the basis for claiming Pasquotank County as my home? It’s difficult to describe without resorting to figurative, hyperbolic, even sentimental language. Why does someone kiss the ground after being lost at sea? It’s irrational, though most can understand the feeling, at least in theory. Just as no single factor generally suffices to prove your home to the state, I realized that a complicated set of mutually reinforcing criteria determined what I called home.

Consider the weight of the combination “born and raised.” There’s an elemental edge to the phrase, as though it refers to something that came out of the ground. But merely being born somewhere, in and of itself, does little to change your lived experience going forward. Though my father was born in Canada, he never considered it his home. This is because his parents (U.S. citizens) returned with him to Upstate New York while he was still very young. Where I was born, where I grew up, where my parents live, where I lived for the longest period, where landmarks trigger the oldest memories: phrases that refer to the same place. If my parents moved to Big Arm, Montana, would I consider it my home? Doubtful. I wonder about other tipping points, however. I lived in one town for 18 years, and the latter 12 of those were in the same house. If I had instead lived in three towns for six years each, which would feel most like home?

Taken to extremes, the emphasis on origin, nativeness, “those who belong” leads to the converse: an emphasis on outsiders, strangers, foreign bodies, infectious agents. It’s no coincidence that the language of this most recent challenge to voter eligibility in Pasquotank County contains phrases like “symptom of voter fraud” and again, however redundantly, “symptom of a systemic infection of voter fraud.” Compare the president-elect’s words on illegal immigration: “Infectious disease” is “pouring across the border.” Consider the words of Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s pick for national security advisor: “Islam is a political ideology. … It’s like a malignant cancer.”

Republicans, in their current form, are a party so desperate to win they are increasingly turning to voter suppression, partisan redistricting, and appeals to fear of the other. These and other efforts have only increased my desire to vote in North Carolina, and many share this view. The hard work of organizing as well as continuing demographic changes make it more likely North Carolina will be known as a progressive (though imperfect) southern state rather than the state that repealed the Racial Justice Act and introduced HB2. On December 15, the state board of elections, which had assumed jurisdiction over the challenge to my voter eligibility, voted unanimously to dismiss the challenge. I look forward to voting in North Carolina’s federally ordered special election in 2017.