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N.C. Chief Supreme Court candidate pushes to count more votes — if they're from Democrats

N.C. Chief Supreme Court candidate pushes to count more votes — if they're from Democrats

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RALEIGH — N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley told election officials this week that she wants to restore thousands of ballots that her campaign claims were wrongfully rejected by county boards.

"These wrongful denials," her campaign's protest filings read, "have deprived voters of their right to cast absentee ballots, thus, casting doubt on the apparent results of the election."

But that concern didn't appear to apply to Republican voters, an analysis by The News Observer shows.

Across the more than 3,200 voter names Beasley's campaign provided to election officials in almost every county in North Carolina, only a handful belonged to registered Republicans.

Beasley, the Democratic incumbent for the state Supreme Court chief justice position, is currently trailing her colleague and opponent Justice Paul Newby, a Republican, by about 400 votes. In addition to filing protests in 89 counties across the state, Beasley also asked for a statewide recount for her race.

That largely began Thursday and must be completed by Wednesday.

Newby seeking to reject voters who died

In a letter to State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell, lawyers for the Beasley campaign wrote that the protests "allege violations and/or irregularities based on technical, complicated and detailed grounds."

"As a result of complicated decisions from state courts and federal courts, recent changes to our statutory scheme, and record-breaking absentee voting in North Carolina, our county boards of elections have made some errors in reviewing the ballots," attorney John Wallace wrote in the letter, dated Tuesday.

Beasley's protests, in almost identical filings with 89 county boards of elections across the state, are certainly technical, especially when compared to the handful of protests filed by her opponent. Newby's own challenges largely seek to reject ineligible voters, like those who cast ballots but died before Election Day.

Out of several dozen voters Newby's campaign has challenged on these grounds across the state, at least 11 are Republicans.

Republican Party spokesman Tim Wigginton, who helped oversee Newby's campaign, said the party heard some county election boards were doing a bad job tracking deaths. He said the campaign did not look at party affiliation before filing its protests in those counties.

However, all of them are heavily Democratic counties: Guilford, Durham, Orange, Wake and Mecklenburg.

Newby also filed complaints elsewhere, including both Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning counties, unrelated to dead voters.

He added that the party has tried to hold boards of elections accountable when it thought there might be policy violations.

Problematic data

But the voters on the Beasley campaign's lists span 60 pages. Some of those are mail-in ballots her campaign says were wrongfully rejected by county election officials. Another portion is made up of uncounted provisional ballots cast after problems at the polls.

To identify those voters, number crunchers with the Democratic Party used a mix of public election data and information captured from its volunteer operation, which fanned out across the state to collect the handwritten information voters entered on their mail-in ballot envelopes.

That data has already been problematic.

WRAL News reported Wednesday that some of the ballots in the Beasley campaign list were actually counted by local boards of elections. The list is also rife with duplicate voter names and mismatched voter identification numbers.

In Mecklenburg County, election officials there have already dismissed the chief justice's protest — and Newby's as well — outright, Fox 46 Charlotte reported.

In their submissions to county election officials, the Beasley campaign did not include data on individual voters' party affiliation.

But an N&O analysis that matched more than 2,800 names on the campaign's list with public election data shows that about 70% identify as Democrats. Another 800 are unaffiliated.

Only nine voters matched from Beasley's list were members of the GOP — less than 1% of the total.

That may be a slight undercount, since not all the names on the list could be matched to public data.

Regardless, the rough percentages indicate "a list that is bereft of Republicans," said Chris Cooper, professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University.

"There is no way it is an accident that you are getting fewer than 20 Republicans out of over 2,000 matched voters. There's just no way," Cooper said. "Davidson football has a better chance of defeating Ohio State — and they don't even have a football team."

(Davidson actually does have a football team, but the college's league suspended conference play in fall 2020 due to COVID-19.)

But to Cooper, the complaints read largely like "business as usual" for partisan politics.

"This is data pulled to make a point. These are not data that are pulled to be fair," Cooper said. "These are data pulled to try to get Beasley elected. Let's call it for what it is."

Omitting Republicans

In an interview with the N&O, campaign manager Benjamin Woods sidestepped questions about omitting GOP voters from its protest list.

"What is unacceptable is for any voter to be wrongfully disenfranchised," Woods said. "We will keep fighting to make sure that does not happen."

That position doesn't jibe with the campaign's strategy, says Mike Rusher, a former Republican campaign strategist and vice president of The Results Company, a Raleigh-based public affairs consulting firm, who's been watching the chief justice race closely.

"That brazen attempt to tip the scales in her own favor is something that's very surprising to see from the state's top judge," Rusher, who is not involved with the Newby campaign, said.

Newby's challenges, Rusher said, are "pretty routine" by comparison, and have come in relatively small batches. The challenge for Republicans now is whether they'll want to duplicate the Beasley campaign's strategy for their own voters.

"I don't think it's following the same playbook," Rusher said of that possible strategy for Republicans. "It's adding the pages that were ripped out of the playbook before it was submitted."

Cooper said Beasley's partisan strategy doesn't necessarily mean the ballots her campaign identified shouldn't be counted. And he said candidates aren't obligated to extend their election protests to cover both parties.

"She's not saying this is what the perfect election would look like. She's saying these votes were not counted fairly," Cooper said. "Those are different points."

And judges or not, he said, Newby and Beasley are still politicians competing for votes in a partisan contest. That's a choice not every state has made about the selection of their judicial officials.

"The big takeaway message to me of all of this is that partisans want to win elections," Cooper said. "And they're going to do that any way they can."​

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