The Political Junkies



The State Senate passed Same Day Voter Registration following State Auditor Les Merritt's failed intervention into the legislative process.   

The Senate attached two amendments to the bill.  One amendment would require English only voter registration forms and ballots.  The second amendment makes the effective date of the new law unworkable for many North Carolina counties.   

Because the Senate version of the bill is now different than the version passed by the State House, each chamber has appointed conferees to work out the differences in the bill.  The conferees are: 

Reps. Deborah Ross (D-Wake), Hugh Holliman (D-Davidson), Joe Tolson (D-Edgecombe), Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth), Carolyn Justice (R-Pender) and Danny McComas (R-New Hanover). On Wednesday, the Senate appointed its conference committee: Sens. Dan Clodfelter (D-Mecklenburg), Tony Rand (D-Cumberland) and Richard Stevens (D-Wake).  

We anticipate that the English only provision will be removed from the bill.  Bill Drafting Director Gerry Cohen has advised legislators that this amendment violates the Voting Rights Act with respect to Puerto Rican citizens on this basis. We also expect that the conferees will work out an effective date for the new law that will be workable for all counties.  

It now appears that SDVR will become law in North Carolina.  Progressives can claim a large measure of pride in helping to enact the new law that may bring new voters into the civic politic.  

                        LES MERRITT 

The Charlotte Observer editorially stings State Auditor Les Merritt's intervention into the legislative debate over Same Day Voter Registration ("SDVR").  The editorial calls Merritt's performance "awkward."   

State Auditor Les Merritt has been in office only about 21/2 years, but his curious intervention in a legislative debate constitutes one of the strangest political episodes in a long time. Lawmakers of both parties were left shaking their heads as to what he hoped to accomplish. It seems likely he has undermined his department's credibility and left his own judgment in question. . . .  

When the committee convened . . . , the hearing room was packed with legislators from both parties and a public audience interested in the "sensitive information" Mr. Merritt had mentioned. What they heard, instead, was a defensive, disjointed denial by Mr. Merritt that his agency was motivated by partisan politics or that it was trying to influence the Senate vote on the voting bill. Mr. Merritt said his agency still had questions, but he backed away from preliminary findings of irregularities his staff evidently reported a week ago to the State Board of Elections. He added, "We'll eventually get to a correct, final report, and that final report, it could very well say there isn't anything here, that everything's fine, we're doing a super job." 

Mr. Merritt's non-response to the request for specific information seemed to underscore state elections director Gary Bartlett's assertion last week that the auditor's staff misunderstood either the law or the data they were examining. Senate committee members of both parties were perplexed that Mr. Merritt would interrupt the legislative process without providing compelling evidence that would affect a bill. 

As Sen. Clodfelter put it, "When you blow the whistle while the process is still incomplete, and then aren't able to say to us whether there is a problem or is not a problem ... it does create a very awkward situation." 

Awkward, indeed. It also creates the possibility the legislature will seek changes in audit procedures -- or perhaps even contemplate auditing the auditor. The bill for this gaffe could be a big one.

The Charlotte Observer's editorial makes a valid point, but misses the broader reality of just how inaccurate the preliminary report Merritt produced proved to be.   

Last week in TPJ documented that Merritt did not know two critical aspects of North Carolina election law. 

First, one would assume that Merritt's auditors would know the basic facts.  One such basic fact is how many registered voters exist in North Carolina.  This number is requires no complicated calculations; it is readily available from the State Board of Elections' web site.  Merritt got the number wrong.  Merritt's preliminary report contended that North Carolina has some 8.5 million voters and that half of those voters, 4,227,708 to be precise, registered to vote through the Department of Motor Vehicles ("Motor Voter").   

Wrong.  North Carolina has some 5.5 million registered voters. Therefore, 4,227,708 voters could not have possibly registered through Motor Voter.  And, Motor Voter registrations account for far less than 50% of all registrations in North Carolina as claimed by Merritt.  

Second, Merritt contended that a number of 17 year olds who voted in primaries represented voter fraud.   

Wrong.   Merritt and his staff did not understand basic election law.  North Carolina Law, 163-59, permits a citizen who is 17 years old to vote in a primary IF they become 18 before the general election or municipal election for which that primary is held. 

This week, we cover a third aspect of Merritt's report that missed the mark -the dead vote in North Carolina.  Merritt's office contended that between the 2004 general election through the 206 general election that eight voters cast a ballot that were dead.    

Wrong:  An investigation outside Merritt's "preliminary report" determined that in three cases there an administrative data entry error had been made.  In five of the cases, a citizen lawfully cast an absentee ballot before Election Day and died prior to the election.  Election officials were not notified of the death until after the official canvas for the election.  

From a larger sample of voting records including elections prior to 2004, Merritt contended that some 380 voters cast ballots after the dates of their death.  

Wrong.  The State Board of elections determined that all of the 380 voters cast their votes by absentee ballot prior to the election and simply died prior to the election.  Again, elections officials were not informed of the deaths prior to the official canvas that determines the final results of the election. 

That election officials are not informed of a death prior to the election is quite understandable IF one has a proper knowledge of election law.  Election officials, by law, must rely on Department of Health and Human Services records that are transmitted to the State Elections Board monthly.   There is a 90 day period between the dates of death and the date the State Board receives that notice.  Therefore, the Board of Elections may not receive a notice of death of a citizen who cast a legal absentee ballot, who dies 30 days before Election Day, until well after the election has been certified. 

Readers should recall that it was Merritt who made this statement regarding his preliminary findings:

Merritt said that the audit has turned up numerous instances of people improperly listed in the state's database as eligible to vote. He said that the audit has found hundreds of dead people or people under 18 listed in the voter database, as well as uncovering thousands of invalid numbers on driver's licenses. He added that the data are preliminary, and he is not ready to issue a final audit report.

The assertion that there were "numerous" instances of voter registration irregularities grabbed the headlines as Merritt's assertions appeared to be facts.  They were not.  There are several critical perspectives related to Merritt's preliminary report: 

1.   Even if Merritt's findings had been correct, and they were not, the number of "dead voters" is so small statistically (some 400 out of millions of votes cast) that there is obviously no orchestrated voter fraud.  

2.   Merritt's auditors clearly did not understand the basics of North Carolina election law.  The simple fact remains that the Auditor did not even know how many registered voters exist in North Carolina.  The lack of understanding did not stop there; it includes a lack of basic understanding of the laws on which North Carolina elections are predicated for 17 year old voters and reporting the death of registered voters.  

3.   Merritt's intervention into SDVR registration (his request to impart "sensitive" findings to the General Assembly) denotes that Merritt and his auditors were convinced that they had discovered proof of wide spread voter fraud in North Carolina.   

Merritt's "preliminary report" contains even more errors that demonstrate a lack of understanding of basic election law and State Board records.  TPJ will return to more examples in the weeks to come.  

What has been revealed is that the Charlotte Observer's description of Merritt's performance as "awkward" is simply an adjective.   The compelling question is how a State Auditor got his facts so wrong.  Unfortunately for North Carolina's reputation; Les Merritt's name is synonymous with his report; there was indeed less merit in it than he claimed.    

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