- Incompetence or malfeasance by county or precinct election officials must be exposed to maintain the integrity of our elections
- The State Board of Elections must be held accountable in cases of mismanagement and misinformation
- North Carolina citizens have an important role in securing the integrity of our elections
While there is certainly more to democracy than elections, elections are the focal point of a democracy. They are the moments when the people bestow legitimacy upon our leaders and our leaders submit themselves to the people’s judgment.
For those reasons, it is crucial that our elections be conducted fairly and with integrity, which is why the conduct of election officials is critical. While the vast majority of elections board members and election workers are competent and dedicated to electoral integrity, unfortunately, that is not always true. That is why it is so important that election officials at all levels be held accountable.
Watching county boards of elections
County boards of elections (BOEs) and their employees are the “street-level bureaucrats of elections” who do the bulk of the work preparing for and conducting elections. A brief listing of the duties of local BOEs, provided by the Nash County Board of Elections, is illustrative of the importance of county BOEs to the integrity of elections:
- Establishing election precincts and voting sites
- Appointing and training precinct officials
- Preparing and distributing ballots and voting equipment
- Canvassing and certifying the ballots cast in elections
- Investigating any voting irregularities
- Maintain voter registration and participation records
- Provide public information on voters and elections
- Review and audit local campaign finance records
When there is incompetence or malfeasance by county or precinct election officials, the integrity of our elections is compromised. It is crucial that such cases are brought into the light of day.
Perhaps no case better illustrates that than that of (now former) Forsyth County Elections Director Rob Coffman. My predecessor at Civitas, Susan Myrick, documented Coffman’s mismanagement, including failures to maintain voter rolls and abuse of coworkers at the Forsyth BOE several times in 2013 and 2014 before he was eventually fired.
At other times, problems with elections boards are just a matter of local officials not thinking things through. In October of 2019, a lack of coordination between the Nash County and Edgecombe County BOEs meant that voters in different sections of Rocky Mount (parts of which are in both counties) had different access to early voting. After a tip from a local citizen to Civitas, we helped publicize that problem before it was eventually corrected.
Are there clues that may indicate an election problem? We also look for unusual data patterns that may reveal mischief or simply quirks in the elections process.
Watching the NC State Board of Elections
It is also important to hold the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) accountable, both for problems within its ranks and for enabling mischief by county boards. That enabling takes two forms; glossing over maleficence by county boards and providing improper instructions to county boards. We have seen both recently.
One of the important functions of the SBE is policing county boards, but what if they refuse to exercise that function? An SBE hearing in October of 2019 illustrates that dereliction of duty. At that meeting, board members refused to believe that this statement from a member of the Bladen County BOE was a violation of North Carolina law prohibiting election officials from making public statements “supporting or opposing the nomination or election of one or more clearly identified candidates for public office:”
I have not decided who I will support in 2020, but it will not be a racist, sexist, lying, adulterous, sexually deviant moron like Trump.
The SBE voted along party lines to not even investigate that matter. The biggest complaint expressed from Democrats on the state board at that meeting was that her statement “brings so much unwanted scrutiny.”
Perhaps worse is when the SBE issues bad policy recommendations, both to the General Assembly and to county BOEs. We publicized the former when SBE officials made insufficient recommendations to combat absentee ballot fraud (the General Assembly eventually passed stronger reforms).
The SBE has also given poor advice to local boards and regular citizens, such as instructing county boards to essentially ignore discrepancies on absentee ballot containers that could be signs of absentee ballot fraud or ballot harvesting.
Perhaps the most blatant misinformation to come from the SBE was in the form of a presentation from SBE voter outreach specialist Dr. E. Lee Cooley in 2016. Cooley, acting as an expert on voting rules for the SBE, gave advice that would clearly violate North Carolina law:
Cooley: “Now my brother, likes to drink a little toddy, he ain’t going to make it to early voting, he ain’t going to make it to vote on election day, but every year he expects me to request an absentee ballot and vote the ballot for him. ‘Sister, did I vote?’ That’s what they call me – ‘Sister, did I vote?’ Yes, you did. And, everything is fine.”
Q3: “So I can fill out a ballot for somebody else if I qualify as a near relative.”
Cooley: “Yes, ma’am, you can.”
The SBE fired Cooley after a Civitas Report brought that malfeasance to light.
These are just a sample of the problems with the SBE and county elections boards that Civitas has helped bring to light. To make North Carolina elections better, we must continue to hold elections officials accountable.
What you can do
The role of ordinary citizens is crucial for maintaining the integrity of our elections.
Volunteer to be poll watchers, both for early voting and on election day. If you witness election officials acting incompetently or improperly, or if you witness what you believe to be any form of election fraud, contact your local party leaders and elections officials at the next highest level immediately (for example, contact county officials if you witness a problem at the precinct level).
You can also contact the Civitas Institute. Much of our work on exposing problems with boards of elections starts with tips from concerned citizens. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will help investigate the matter.