- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 18, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A voting rights group called Tuesday for state and local officials to investigate whether allies of North Carolina’s former governor and the state Republican Party broke laws when hundreds of people were accused of voter fraud or absentee ballot irregularities last November.

“We are calling on them to enforce state and federal laws that protect the right to vote and the integrity of the election process,” Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, said at a news conference.

More than 50 postelection protests were filed in 37 counties soon after Election Day for the extremely close race between then-Gov. Pat McCrory and Democratic challenger Roy Cooper. Many of the protests alleged that ballots had been cast by convicted felons, dead people or those who voted in another state. The protests sought to have the ballots thrown out.

Democracy North Carolina said most of the accusations were irresponsible because the claims weren’t backed by evidence or could be eliminated based on cursory reviews of voter roll information. The protests were designed to intimidate voters for political gain or put in doubt the election result, the group’s report describing its own review alleges.

Most of the protests were dismissed for lack of evidence or sidelined by GOP-controlled election boards because they were filed too late and the number of votes wouldn’t change the outcome. McCrory conceded in early December to Cooper, who won by 10,277 votes out of more than 4.7 million cast in the race.

Lawyers for McCrory’s campaign or allies in the state GOP were involved in the protests, according to protest documents and the report. The group said officials should now examine whether “agents” for the GOP and his campaign broke criminal laws protecting the right to vote and to count ballots without interference.

A majority of the protests were prepared and sent by email to county election boards from a Virginia-based law firm paid by both McCrory’s campaign committee and his legal defense fund, according to the group’s report.

The accusations “harassed and harmed individual voters … emotionally, damaged their reputations, exposed them to public ridicule, intimidated them with unfamiliar and unwarranted legal proceedings that were intended to void their ballots and maligned their character,” said Isela Gutierrez, a co-author of the group’s report.

State GOP Chairman Robin Hayes countered that Democracy North Carolina is the one trying to bully voters and called the group’s actions “nothing short of voter and citizen intimidation.” Hayes pointed out that instances of improper voting did occur last fall, as identified in the group’s report.

“Citizens have rights, as prescribed by law, to make inquiries about potential voting irregularities,” Hayes said in a release. Responding Tuesday evening to an email seeking his response, McCrory referred to Hayes’ statement.

Democracy North Carolina said its research, based on public records and interviews, determined fewer than 5 percent of about 600 ballots identified in the filed protests were illegally cast or counted, and said most of the problem ballots were not filed with the intent to break the law.

Hall said Democracy North Carolina’s report will be given to the State Board of Elections, local district attorneys and federal prosecutors.

In a statement, the State Board of Elections said the group’s information will be added to its ongoing investigation of postelection protests. The board is expected soon to consider proposed changes to election protest forms that would tell protesters it’s a felony to submit a fraudulent form and would make clear when a candidate or political party is involved with the filing, the statement said.

In February, four Guilford County voters who said they were falsely accused of illegal voting in one of the post-Election Day protests sued their accuser in state court, alleging defamation.

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