NORTH CAROLINA — While North Carolina may not be “that important to the electoral math” of the presidential race, according to the New York Times’s Nate Silver, this state is seeing its share of battles in the so-called voting wars. Partisan fights over election rules and processes—who votes, when and how—are playing out here as in many other states. Last year, a voter ID bill was passed by the state’s legislature but vetoed by the current Democratic governor. Other proposals affecting voter access (which the state broadened after the Help America Vote Act of 2002) rose during that legislative session but failed to advance.
In a more recent wrinkle, late last week the North Carolina Republican Party said it had cut ties with Strategic Allied Consulting, a firm hired by the Republican National Committee and state Republican parties to register new GOP voters in five key swing states. The move came in the wake of news that the consulting firm, founded in June by Arizona political consultant Nathan Sproul, is under investigation in Florida for questionable voter registration tactics. The RNC, which has paid Strategic some $3 million this year, and the Colorado Republican Party also dumped the firm last week.
How have North Carolina reporters fared covering skirmishes around the voting process here to date? How have they fit those cases into national context? And, what can reporters do between now and November to better cover this critical topic?
Reporter Mark Binker of WRAL was on top of the Strategic Allied Consulting story with a blog post last Thursday. Binker called up North Carolina’s state GOP chairman and asked about ties to the company, and he linked prominently to a post published in late August, by Greg Flynn of the liberal blog BlueNC, that dug into, as Flynn wrote, the company’s “history of fraud allegations.”
Flynn used Federal Election Commission records to find that North Carolina’s Republican party had paid Strategic Allied Consulting more than $300,000 in July. And Flynn’s detailed post included background that showed Sproul’s company had faced questions about voter fraud in the past, including the destruction of Democratic voter registration forms.
Observed WRAL’s Binker on Thursday:
Paid voter registration efforts are nothing new. While campaigns would prefer to rely on volunteers, signing up voters can by drudgery.
But Republicans have been running on a platform that includes requiring photo ID when voters go to the polls as a way to combat voter fraud. So there’s an heavy dose of irony that the GOP has been paying a company that is itself linked to questionable voting practices.
On September 17, Binker reported on the efforts of the Voter Integrity Project—the “North Carolina offshoot of True the Vote,” Binker wrote, “a national movement that purports to combat election fraud by challenging the voter registration of those they believe should not be on voter lists”—and the effects those efforts had on one North Carolina voter who received a letter questioning whether she was still alive. (Voter Integrity Project issued this rebuttal to Binker’s report). On September 24, Kelly Poe of the Raleigh News and Observer wrote of how the North Carolina Elections Board handled purging of its voter rolls after the Voter Integrity Project claimed to find 30,000 “dead voters.” Poe’s story also appeared in shortened form in the News and Observer’s sister McClatchy paper, the Charlotte Observer. (Media Matters here found fault with the shorter version).
Binker deserves praise for sticking with a hot topic and reading widely enough to be aware of Flynn’s blog work, and the McClatchy sisters deserve praise for coordination, building on Poe’s work with a September 24th follow-up piece about voter ID from Observer veteran Jim Morrill. The Observer also built on work by another McClatchy paper, the Miami Herald, to further the Sproul/Strategic Allies story on Sunday night. WFAE, a Charlotte public radio station, followed up Monday and reported that several suspect ballots had been linked to Strategic Allies, according to the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections director.
But much more can and should be done. North Carolina needs reporters focusing on the voting process here to help protect the integrity of this election. With fewer resources in newsrooms, creative reporting methods can help. Two examples:
Carolina Transparency, a project of the conservative John W. Pope Civitas Institute (which I’ve written about here before), provides online, up-to-date charts that can help show trends for voter registration and generate story ideas. For example, the numbers there show something happened with the voter rolls in Anson County last summer. Anson is a rural area with high unemployment 50 miles southeast of Charlotte, beyond the coverage areas of the state’s larger newspapers. Between June and July, 620 voters left the voter rolls, according to Carolina Transparency, in a county with only 16,800 registered voters, while other counties were mostly adding voters. A little Googling shows that the North Carolina Board of Elections terminated Anson County’s board of elections director in July. Reporting out that story could shed light on the state’s process of managing voter rolls, and even small numbers will matter in rural Anson, which is in the tight US House 8th District race between incumbent Democrat Larry Kissell and challenger Richard Hudson.
Data is also available from the national News21 Voting Rights project, a national investigative reporting project funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The project built a database this past summer examining cases of voter fraud, using Freedom of Information requests sent across the country. The project’s conclusion: voter fraud is rare and wouldn’t be prevented by voter ID laws. Both the Greensboro News & Record and the Elizabeth City Daily Advance used News21’s conclusions to write editorials against a voter ID law. More reporting could be done, including taking a closer look at the few voter fraud cases that News21 listed in North Carolina, examining how they happened and how they could be prevented.
In North Carolina, the presidential race was decided by 14,000 votes. In contests further down the ticket, even fewer numbers can change elections. Voter registration efforts, voter rolls and the voting process need close examination by journalists here and across the country as the campaigns reach their final stretches.