It had all the markings of a classic diversion.
Charlotte was reeling from the resignation of its mayor after bribery allegations. An FBI affidavit hinted at more unearthing to come. Questions about the coziness of Gov. Pat McCrory and his former company, Duke Energy, had emerged after the coal-ash spill into the Dan River. Clay Aiken was making a go of it against an incumbent Republican congresswoman.
Then came a legislative oversight hearing in Raleigh April 2, with a report from the N.C. elections board on its efforts to clean up the voter rolls. The state's new Byzantine voter-ID law - really, more of an elections omnibus bill - requires "diligent" efforts to get ineligible voters off the rolls, instead of the earlier "reasonable" effort. Most big-city elections board in North Carolina do such cleanup routinely, but the state hadn't readily shared its rolls with other states until recently.
The hearing gave Republicans a chance to dredge up allegations of voter fraud in North Carolina, an issue that has haunted the state since at least Reconstruction. It's a topic that lets the GOP feed its base while hinting at trouble for people who might not have all their papers in order. Republicans have oddly cast the issue as partisan, even though a field organizer for Republican Congressman Patrick McHenry was indicted in 2004 for voting fraud.
After the hearing, those who work in or with the Republican party seized on a few numbers from the preliminary report - before enough evidence was available to charge anyone - in order to generate a headline and maybe a click on a "Donate!" button. The early April meeting and the drama that ensued brings back memories of the dog-and-pony show hearings in 2013 and 2014 about the Affordable Care Act.
It was easy to fall for the sexy big numbers at the hearing, in the shadow of lawsuits about new voting lines and new voting rules. But as more and more states compare voting databases to check - and sometimes purge - voting rolls, attention must be paid to the details. A further inspection reveals that a small group has big influence on how we vote in North Carolina.
On the day of the hearing, the Twitter account for state Rep. David R. Lewis tweeted highlights before it began, at noon.
The elections board found:
- 765 database matches for first and last names, date of birth and last four digits of social security numbers for votes in North Carolina and another state.
- More than 35,000 database matches for first and last names and date of birth of voted recorded in North Carolina.
- 81 dead voters in North Carolina with voter history later than the date of their death. (A close look at the presentation slide deck shows that number came over 10 years.)
Becki Gray, outreach director of the John Locke Foundation, responded on Twitter: "Whoa! 35,750 voters voted twice in 2012 general election, once in NC, and again in another state. No fraud? No abuse? #ncga, fix it please."
Other GOP-leaning Twitter accounts dutifully retweeted Lewis' tweets, about 20 times for each.
At 11:58 a..m. (before the meeting began), Sean Spicer, spokesman at the Republican National Committee, tweeted: "NC Board of Elections audit finds 35,750 instances of "double voting" (voter fraud) in the 2012 election." He included a cc: to two national Democratic spokespeople, as a bit of a side dig.
It became clear - even before the elections board showed its findings - that Republican leaders wanted to set a narrative of voter fraud in North Carolina, whether the evidence showed it or not.
The numbers shared had no comparisons to other similar states and no explanation of the probability of finding such matches based on math. The messaging equated what should be a routine government function - maintaining voter rolls - with felonious behavior by someone else.
At the legislative hearing, elections director Kim Strach shared slides about the election board's work, including data from a crosschecking partnership with the Kansas Consortium, run by that state's GOP attorney general and including about 27 other states.
Strach, who has worked on campaign finance issues for the elections board in the past, is married to Phil Strach, who served as legal counsel to Lewis and Rep. Bob Rucho as they redrew North Carolina's voting maps. Her husband later moved on to defending the state following the redistricting and has been hired by House Speaker Thom Tillis as outside counsel to defend the state's new voter law. He's one of the lawyers making lots of money from challenges to legislation in North Carolina.
Here's how the Kansas Consortium works: Strach's department shares voting rolls and voting records with other states through a password-protected FTP site, and the Kansas attorney general's office compares records and returns results. So far, the cross checking has resulted in a handful of voter-fraud convictions across the country, with double voting a possible felony (bargained down in some cases).
Tillis joined in a statement with Sen. Pro Tem Phil Berger within 90 minutes of the end of the meeting, repeating the numbers and calling the results "alarming."
2:06 p.m. - Laura Leslie of WRAL in Raleigh posts her story on the hearing, headlined "State elections officials seek tighter security." I didn't see it when it went up - I'm guessing it was a headline and short update to get the news out fast. She updated later at the same URL.
2:25 - GOP Sen. Pro Tem Phil Berger's account tweets out a statement: "Tillis, Berger Issue Joint Statement on Newly Discovered, Alarming Evidence of Voter Error & Fraud." It got seven retweets, including the N.C. GOP's official Twitter account. The tweet links to Berger's campaign website. Members of the N.C. General Assembly have official, static pages at the General Assembly's site, but separate campaign websites allow them to share the big red "Donate Now!" buttons. (Berger has no primary opposition for his state Senate seat. He faces Democratic challenger William Osbourne in the fall. If he doesn't spend all his campaign donations, he's free to donate it to the state party or other state candidates.)
2:30 - A wrap-up tweet about the legislative hearing comes from the Lewis account.
2:31 - Tillis's account retweets his @nchousespeaker account, linking to the joint statement with Berger. The speaker account appears to be managed by state Rep. Tim Moffitt's business, while the main @thomtillis account appears to be managed by the Stoneridge Group in Georgia, judging from campaign finance expenditures and other sources. No giant red "Donate" button here - just six paragraphs that match Berger's statement, but with letterhead. The statement oddly attributes a quote to both Tillis and Berger: "While we are alarmed to hear evidence of widespread voter error and fraud, we are encouraged to see the common-sense law passed to ensure voters are who they say they are is working," they said. Almost the same phrase, "common-sense voter ID law," appeared this week in a new ad for Tillis sponsored by American Crossroads, a super PAC associated with Karl Rove. The ad stuck an extra "Protect our voter ID law," just to make sure you got the point.
2:45 - A statement comes from the N.C. GOP on Twitter, introducing the word "massive": "NCGOP statement on new evidence of massive voter fraud in NC," linking to a party website with the big "Donate" button. The statement there quoted state GOP chairman Claude Pope saying Democrats "seemingly condone voter fraud." It highlighted the 35,750 matches for names and birth dates only, a rather inflated number given probability, with the Kansas Consortium analyzing 101 million voter records.
3:10 - Lewis' account tweets: "Today we found devastating vulnerabilities in our election system," with a link to his campaign website, with one slide from the official elections board presentation. Hashtag thevotingdead. (Really).
3:14 (12:14 West Coast time, from the blog time stamp and a tweet from @texasbryanp) - Bryan Preston posted on PJ Tatler at PJ Media, with the headline, "Massive Voter Fraud Discovered in North Carolina's 2012 Election." Preston was spokesman of the Texas Republican party before joining PJM, his bio there says. Three days after the elections board presentation, the post remained the most-read on the site.
4:46 - The Gateway Pundit posts with the headline, "MASSIVE VOTER FRAUD IN NORTH CAROLINA: 35,570 Voters With Same Last Name and DOB Voted in Two States." Variations on the that headline popped up quickly on right-leaning websites.
Later that evening, Fox News slapped the headline, "Massive Voter Fraud Scandal Erupts in North Carolina," on Leslie's WRAL story it had "borrowed." The original headline was "State elections officials seek tighter security." (Never mind the copyright violations here - the hyperbolic, premature headline atop a balanced story was perhaps the biggest affront.)
Lewis, the representative who tweeted during the hearing, went on Sean Hannity's radio show Friday to stoke the fires more. Also Friday, Mitch Kokai of the John Locke Foundation wrote something trying to show that voter IDs really would prevent the seeming duplicate voting among states.
Are these theatrics surrounding voter rolls a prelude to actions in the short session, a way to build support for purging voter roles, the kind of purge struck down in Florida, the kind of purge that caused issues in Virginia last year? Only 165 votes separated the winner and loser in the race for attorney general in Virginia, on first count. It's clear every vote counts.
Or was this legislative hearing in North Carolina just a diversion, or a way of getting a phrase into a campaign ad, or a click on a "donate" button? Was the Rove machine behind the communications campaign?
It's hard to tell at this point. What is clear: N.C. Republicans, with a little help from national friends, seized on a preliminary report, stuck it into a narrative more than happily swallowed by many without further thought, apparently trying to justify a new elections law now challenged in court.
Other sources - the Brennan Center for Justice and elections boards in states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia - have already been through this pain and show what to do and what not to do when using data to maintain voter rolls.
We can hope the close ties among those tinkering with our voting system don't get in the way of doing the right thing. We can hope Raleigh leaders examine the advice and results from other states. And we can hope that clean voter rolls - and easy voting - do not become partisan issues. This should be policy work, not politics.
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