Sunday, July 21, 2024

‘It has nothing to do with voter suppression’: Despite GOP’s many wins, party still questions ballots at election canvass

The New Hanover County GOP called 16 absentee-by-mail ballots into question because they were lacking confirmation of chain of custody, but the local board already had records for 10 of them.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Protests from the local Republican Party lingered as the New Hanover County Board of Elections closed the books on this year’s contests.

The board approved the finalized results for New Hanover County races in a 4-1 decision Friday afternoon. The board signed off on 1,678 additional ballots from a mix of early and provisional voting. No races met state thresholds to undergo a recount.

READ MORE: Election 2022 results: Republicans win big

After all is said and done, the GOP won 21 out of 26 positions on the ballot in New Hanover. It now represents a U.S. senator, a U.S. House member, an N.C. Senate seat, two state house seats, four school board positions, a new county commissioner, a soil and water supervisor, two North Carolina Supreme Court Justices, four appeals judges, two district judges, the local clerk of superior court. The party also touts defeating the proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase proposed for transportation projects.

New Hanover GOP Chair Will Knecht told Port City Daily his organization is “pleased but not satisfied” with the results because the party wants as many Republicans in office as possible.

Still, its victories have not stopped the GOP from openly questioning the election results and voting system. Bruce Kemp, a Republican on the county board of elections, was the lone dissenter on approving the canvass during Friday’s meeting.

Kemp is a frequent critic of how the board handles absentee ballots; the Republican often stood alone in his opposition in meetings that took place weeks leading up to the election. Since Oct. 10, he has challenged the board’s procedure to refrain from hand reviewing every absentee-by-mail ballot and has stood by its need in the 10 meetings since.

He asked for a “reconciliation report” for absentee-by-mail ballots — a document that does not exist. However, the board has been reviewing and signing off on the ballots it received through the mail at every meeting leading up to the canvass.

NHC Board of Elections Chair Oliver Carter, a Democrat who frequently mediates issues between the GOP and the board, said documentation was satisfactory ahead of Friday’s approval vote.

After a review of 772 absentee ballots, the New Hanover GOP pointed to 16 the board already accepted, and claimed were handed off in person but did not have a chain-of-custody document attached. This was a far cry from the hundreds of absentee ballots the GOP flagged in 2020 due to missing post marks and witness signatures, as well as having erroneously placed voter signatures.

New Hanover Elections Director Rae Hunter Havens pushed back, reviewing the flags and noting many of the ballots were accepted correctly. On Thursday, she said the board could account for chain-of-custody for 10 of the 16 ballots.

“There’s six where you don’t know who returned the ballot,” said Julius Rothlein, a retired attorney who serves as the New Hanover GOP elections integrity coordinator. 

The North Carolina General Statutes article outlines in several places that a “near relative” or legal guardian are the only people allowed to assist a voter with an absentee ballot. A near relative includes any immediate family member, immediate in-law or spouse.

“But we’ve had situations where boyfriends, girlfriends, ‘the boss sent me with this,’ we’ve had a lot of situations where someone who is not a near relative of the voter was returning it,” Rothlein said. “That’s no good.”

The GOP is helpless to challenge the ballots — most of which were cast by Republicans nonetheless — as the deadline to do so passed Nov. 15. Rothlein said the party isn’t protesting board practices to change the election results; he concedes this year’s contest was a good outcome for the GOP.

Rather, Rothlein’s perspective is that a tight timeline is built into the voting system to minimize challenges and reviews.

“There are some in the conservative camp that have questions about the veracity of our elections,” Knecht said on a phone call Monday. “You know that, I know that, and so we’re trying to come alongside the board of elections to be able to show, through transparency and accountability, that we can trust our results.”

Rothlein noted an inefficiency of the hours-long weekly board meetings leading up to Election Day mostly involved the review of absentee ballots and called the accuracy of machine tabulation into question. He characterized early voting as overcomplicated and prone to error despite the local board’s claim the results are accurate.

“You wouldn’t have this if you had same-day voting, all paper ballots,” he said, adding early voting is a relatively new development.

Absentee voting, which encompasses early one-stop and mail-in, has eclipsed the popularity of same-day voting since it started in the early ‘80s. In New Hanover County, about 55,000 of 94,366 ballots were cast early this year. The GOP, particularly former president Donald Trump, has been fixated on same-day voting since 2020.

Rothlein suggested making each Election Day a national holiday so everyone would be able to vote only on the second Tuesday of November. When pressed on the possible disenfranchisement of first responders, such as police and firefighters, he called them a “limited class” that could receive allowances to vote outside the normal timeframe. 

“I get all that,” Rothlein said. “There’s ways to deal with that.”

He pointed to his 21-year experience of disenfranchisement while serving as a U.S. Army in New Jersey. Rothlein also suggested amending the Constitution to make voting a two-day affair as a possibility.

Ballots cast on Election Day tend to favor Republicans while Democrats typically have larger turn-out during early voting. However, in 2022 Republicans beat out the early vote, too, even if marginally, with 17,290 ballots cast to 17,281, respectively. There is also a large block of unaffiliated voters in the county, accounting for 17,076 votes.

Knecht said he would not be in favor of ending early voting entirely, but he would support a “significant reduction” to the 15 days New Hanover residents could cast their ballots early this year. He said that the number of days is unnecessary and places a burden on staff.

“I would be thrilled if there was 100% voter participation,” Knecht said. “This is not about voter suppression. This is about every legal vote counting and that’s all we want. Easy to vote, hard to cheat.”

Hunter-Havens repeatedly denied issues with the county’s election results.

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