NC needs to punish fraud when parties petition to appear on the ballot

It was not a good look for North Carolina Democrats when they sought to keep the Green Party off the November ballot.

If you’re the party that complains about Republican efforts to skew elections, you ought not be tracking down those who signed petitions to put the Green Party on the ballot and trying to get them to withdraw their signatures.

That misstep undermined the Democrats’ claim that many of the petition signatures were fraudulent and prompted a federal judge last week to stand by his order that Green Party candidates be placed on the ballot for a U.S. Senate and a state Senate seat.

So far, the focus has been on the Democrats’ awkward effort to keep a liberal Green Party candidate for siphoning votes from Democratic Cheri Beasley in a tight U.S. Senate race. But what needs more attention is that the Green Party’s petitions were rife with fraudulent and invalid signatures even if the party had enough legitimate signers to qualify for the ballot.

Matthew Hoh, the Green Party’s U.S. Senate candidate, dismissed the invalid signatures as inevitable glitches in a mass signature drive. He said, “This is going to happen when you collect signatures. Someone will write Mickey Mouse in there, thinking it’s funny.”

But the problem with the petitions wasn’t limited to a few pranksters. The State Board of Elections (SBOE) found multiple pages of signatures signed in the same hand and voters who said they never signed or signed after being misled about the purpose of the petition. Some signatures appear to have been resubmitted from a 2018 signature drive.

The Green Party needed 13,865 signatures to qualify for the ballot. It submitted 22,093. Of those, 15,093 were validated by local elections boards, although that number was reduced upon further inspection by the SBOE. As of this week, the Green Party exceeded the required threshold by more than 1,600 signatures.

The Green Party seemingly has enough legitimate signatures to qualify. But how many illegitimate signatures should be grounds for disqualification?

On ballot petitions, one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch. But thousands of bad apples should.

Nearly one-third of the signatures that were turned in — many of them gathered by paid canvassers who received $3 to $4 per signature — turned out to be phony or invalid. That’s more than 7,000 rejected signatures. That looks like election fraud, a criminal offense.

SBOE investigators are seeking answers. They have subpoenaed out-of-state contractors who collected the signatures, but the subpoenas are being ignored. Investigators worry that they’ve hit a dead end.

The Democrats have been dinged for trying to keep a third party off the ballot, but there’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around.

The Green Party, which supposedly offers a fresh approach to politics, is at best tolerating the worst of old school electoral skulduggery. Meanwhile the Republican Party, which has pushed a state constitutional amendment requiring voter photo ID to ensure that every voter is who they say they are, supports putting the Green Party on the ballot despite the submission of thousands of fraudulent signatures.

The General Assembly’s Republican leadership should show that they are serious about election fraud – as opposed to voter suppression – by taking up two changes recommended by the SBOE:

• Make it illegal to pay signature-gatherers per petition signature. It’s already a crime to pay per voter registration form or absentee ballot request form.

• Require that each petition page identify the person gathering the signatures and disclose their contact information.

The Green Party will not win the U.S. Senate race, but it may determine who does. Those stakes should prompt lawmakers to improve the process for parties to get on the ballot. It would be fine to make it easier, but it’s essential that it be honest.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@