GOP Fraud Claims in North Carolina Governor’s Race Reflect a Strategy to Suppress Black Votes

Whether or not the Republican governor prevails in his quest to overturn the election, his accusations against voters in black communities could have lasting effects.

Someone in the crowds holds up a T-Shirt reading "Can you hear us now, Pat?" addressing Governor Pat McCrory (D-NC) and his HB2 law during U.S. President Barack Obama speech on the campus of the University of Chapel Hill on November 2, 2016 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. President Obama was campaigning for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Photo: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

For more than two decades, the Bladen County Improvement Association has campaigned for the interests of the black community in its poor, heavily rural county in southeastern North Carolina. In addition to speaking out for fair housing and against discrimination, the group’s political arm, which leans Democratic, assists and encourages people to vote in an area where access to polls has had a fraught history, according to its political action committee president, Horace Munn.

“A lot of our voters in Bladen County are afraid to go to the polls and a lot of elderly voters can’t get to the polls,” Munn said. “So if they have an absentee ballot we assist with that, or, for early voting, we’ll assist by bringing them to the polls to vote.”

For its entire existence, Munn’s group has worked in almost total obscurity, having rarely received attention outside the state’s sparsely populated southeastern edge. Yet last week that suddenly changed, as Munn’s group found itself the unlikely center of thunderous accusations from the state’s embattled Republican governor.

Falling behind his Democratic rival in a razor-thin margin after the November 8 election, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory took a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook and launched a vigorous campaign to cast doubt on the results of his state’s election by alleging pervasive voter fraud perpetrated by minority-focused voting groups.

In this effort, McCrory made dire — and highly public — accusations against black voting activists in Bladen County, although no formal investigation into the group has been completed. In a statement posted to the governor’s website November 15, McCrory alleged that Munn’s group had orchestrated “a massive voter fraud scheme” so large as to call the entire state election into question.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 23:  North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory holds a news conference with fellow members of the Republican Governors Association at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce February 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. Republican and  Democratic governors met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House Monday during the last day of the National Governors Association winter meeting.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory holds a news conference with fellow members of the Republican Governors Association at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 23, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“The staggering evidence of voter fraud in Bladen County,” an attorney for the Pat McCrory Committee Legal Defense Fund said in a statement, “and the number of similar PACs that the North Carolina Democratic Party donated to shortly before the start of early vote requires close examination throughout the state.”

In the following days, it was reported that McCrory’s campaign had lodged complaints against 11 other Democratic get-out-the-vote groups in the state mostly focused on outreach among African-American voters. Facing questions about whether Republicans were targeting minority communities, a spokesperson for the governor doubled down on the accusations, asserting that “we didn’t pick the places the Democrats seem to have chosen to commit voter fraud.”

McCrory’s vote protests have since spread to roughly half the state’s counties, and yesterday, he cited pervasive election rigging in demanding a statewide recount. Given the closeness of the race, his charges of fraud carry high stakes.

Liberal observers see McCrory’s invocation of election fraud as an attempt to steal a seat that he’s on the cusp of losing. If the governor succeeds in having the election deemed sufficiently contested, the results could be turned over to the Republican-dominated legislature, which could simply hand the governorship to McCrory, even if he remains behind in the popular vote.

And whether or not McCrory prevails in his quest to retake his governor’s seat, his accusations against voters in black communities could have lasting effects. Having been cast as a criminal enterprise by the state’s most powerful politician, Munn’s group is facing the prospect of a prolonged, Republican-backed voter fraud inquiry into its work.

Arguing that his organization acted only in good faith in getting out the vote, Munn says the Bladen County Improvement Association has been targeted by partisan politics.

“The voter can ask for assistance and a person can assist them up to marking the ballot — that’s the law,” Munn said. “For years and years we’ve acted as advocates for voting, get-out-the-vote, and giving assistance.”

Citing the state’s pending investigation of his group, Munn declined to address details of the fraud accusations, but said that he has been deeply concerned by what he sees as a wave of voter intimidation aimed at his community. “I worry about the impact it will have on the voters in this next election,” Munn said. “I worry about people not willing to go through the trouble of getting to the polls through all of the intimidation. Some, probably a lot, will probably say, ‘You know, it’s not worth it, I’ll just stay home.’”

The accusations against Munn’s group were initiated not by law enforcement but by a local politician named McCrae Dowless, who hired a handwriting expert to scrutinize ballots in a local election. Dowless’s complaint, which was later endorsed by the county board of elections, alleges that Munn’s organization helped voters without signing the necessary paperwork. Yet the complaint does not specifically claim that voters’ choices were subverted or manipulated, and stops short of offering actual evidence to support McCrory’s description of widespread voter fraud.

In comments to the Fayetteville Observer last week, Munn indicated that any ballots lacking notations on the part of those who provided assistance to voters could have arisen from simple confusion.

McCrory’s case against the Bladen County activists, an investigation now being pursued by the state board of elections, shares similarities to other recent moves by Republican-backed law enforcement, which has come down hard on minority get-out-the-vote groups for breaking procedural rules regarding ballot handling and providing voter assistance.

Last year, the state of Georgia lost a case against 11 black voting activists who had been accused of breaching technical aspects of voter assistance rules in helping family members and acquaintances to vote in the town of Quitman. Last month in Indiana, Mike Pence’s state police raided the Indianapolis headquarters of the state’s largest minority-focused voter registration drive because some canvassers had turned in faulty or fabricated forms. Weeks later, in Texas, concerns of intimidation were raised when it was revealed that a Tea Party vigilante had worked with the Republican attorney general on a voter fraud investigation that the activist said was aimed explicitly at minority communities in Fort Worth over accusations relating to improper voter assistance.

In some cases, Republicans’ criminal inquiries into minority get-out-the-vote groups can dog activists for years.

In Georgia, Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp still has not closed a criminal investigation pending for more than two years into the state’s largest minority-focused voter registration group, called the New Georgia Project, according to the group, although apparently no charges have been filed in connection with the investigation.

The controversial, Republican-led enforcement actions are often accompanied by elements of vigilantism, which itself is a recurrent worry of Democrats after Donald Trump repeatedly encouraged his supporters to take voting enforcement into their own hands.

In his challenges to elections across the state, McCrory is often relying on “election protests” filed by private individuals, who are permitted under state law to bring formal challenges against votes they believe were illegitimately cast. On Monday, NC Policy Watch reported that attorneys apparently working for the North Carolina Republican Party had worked closely with some of these challengers, quietly supplying them with information on which to lodge their protests.

Reached by phone, Dowless declined to comment on his complaint against Munn’s group and referred all questions to a spokesperson for Gov. McCrory.

Munn’s concerns over this year’s elections extend beyond McCrory’s scrutiny of his group. He says voter intimidation took place at polling sites in his county, including from Trump supporters who shouted out of car windows at voters entering the polling places.

“For some strange reason,” Munn said, “this election has been the worst that I’ve ever been a part of.”

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