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North Carolina's Green Party says Democrats are working to keep it off 2022 ballot

Stacks of ballot envelopes waiting to be mailed are seen at the Wake County Board of Elections on Sept. 3, 2020, in Raleigh, N.C. The Green Party has so far been kept off North Carolina's 2022 Senate ballot by the Democratic-led Board of Elections.
Gerry Broome
Stacks of ballot envelopes waiting to be mailed are seen at the Wake County Board of Elections on Sept. 3, 2020, in Raleigh, N.C. The Green Party has so far been kept off North Carolina's 2022 Senate ballot by the Democratic-led Board of Elections.

Ralph Nader in 2000. Jill Stein in 2016. Many Democrats think those Green Party candidates cost Democrats the presidency those years.

In North Carolina's high-profile U.S. Senate race this November, the Green Party may not have the chance to play spoiler.

That's because the state Board of Elections, which is controlled by Democrats, has — so far — refused to give the Green Party a spot on the ballot, citing possible fraud in their ballot petition.

That's sparked complaints from the Green Party — along with Republicans — that the board is undermining the Green Party to boost Democratic Senate candidate Cheri Beasley as she faces off against Republican nominee Ted Budd.

The Green Party filed a lawsuit Thursday to try to force the state to give it a spot on the ballot.

The election board has said it's only doing its job, and that it must ensure the signatures needed for ballot access are legitimate.

In late June, the board's executive director, Karen Brinson Bell, told board members that there are problems with the Green Party's signatures.

"There are numerous pages that have obvious signs of fraud or irregularities," she said. "These include the same handwriting throughout and similar signatures."

In the 2020 presidential and gubernatorial elections in North Carolina, the Green Party received less than 2% of the vote. That meant that the party needed a petition to be recognized in 2022.

For the petition, the Green Party needed the signatures of 13,865 voters. The party collected more than 22,000, and county elections boards certified nearly 16,000.

But those boards also told the state there were "irregularities" on the signature sheets.

Brinson Bell said she needed more time to investigate — even though a longer investigation means the Green Party could miss an August deadline for the state to prepare the ballot.

"When you look at these cumulatively, we feel like there is a cloud over how many signatures are valid," she said.

Brinson Bell was appointed by the state's Democratic governor. The board's three Democrats voted on June 30 not to certify the Greens' petition. The two Republicans on the board voted yes.

The Green Party cries foul

The Green Party's U.S. Senate candidate, Matthew Hoh, an Afghanistan veteran, said almost all of the signatures were collected by the party's own volunteers. But he acknowledged they also used a contractor that turned in what he estimated were roughly 200 false signatures.

He said the Green Party was shocked when its petition was rejected.

"And none of it as far as we were told or represented to us amounted to what would be considered systemic fraud," Hoh said. "This is going to happen when you collect signatures. Someone will write Mickey Mouse in there, thinking it's funny."

Hoh said the elections board ignored the already-verified signatures and decided that "because there was this fraud, these 200 signatures, there could be more."

The board of elections, on the other hand, said it believes there could be more than 2,000 fraudulent signatures. It said it's opened a criminal investigation.

The board's chair, Damon Circosta, a Democrat, got into a heated argument with a Green Party attorney during the June 30 meeting. He said this week that "politics played a zero percent role in this board's decision to wait before they decided whether they would certify whether the Green Party could be on the ballot."

He said the board could reverse its decision by the end of the month if the investigation finds enough signatures are OK.

Phone calls to remove names

But in this ballot access dispute, there was some politics clearly at play.

Ahead of the board's vote, a former operative with the state Democratic Party sent a letter alleging that the Greens had misled voters and had hidden their ideology. The letter included some voters' requests to have their names removed from the petition.

The former operative's counsel: the Elias Law Group, which represents the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Green Party Senate candidate Hoh said Democrats were undermining his supporters.

"We started hearing from folks who signed the petition saying, 'Hey, someone just contacted me asking to take my name off the petition,' " Hoh said. "And we said, 'What?' "

He released a recording of a phone call he claimed was between Tony Ndege, who is the co-chair of the state Green Party, with someone who tried to get him to take his name off the petition.

In the call, Ndege asks the person: "Is this the Green Party?"

The caller says "yes."

He asks again if the caller is with the Green Party, and the caller again says yes.

When asked, Ndege says he signed the petition. The caller then appears to read from a script, saying the Green Party will help Republicans.

"Are you interested in asking to have your name removed from this petition or leave it?" the caller asks.

Ndege says he is "confused."

"So if you are with the Green Party, why are you asking me to remove?" he asks.

Then the phone call ends. It's unclear who made it.

The Elias Law Group and the North Carolina Democratic Party did not respond to interview requests.

Circosta said the election board's investigation had already started before the letter challenging the signatures.

But the entire episode has raised skepticism.

"There must be something advantageous for the Democrat Party not having the Green Party on the ballot," said GOP elections board member Tommy Tucker.

The Senate race — for an open seat after Republican Richard Burr said he wouldn't run again — is expected to be tight.

And Beasley, the Democratic nominee, knows about close races. She lost her reelection bid to the state Supreme Court two years ago by just 401 votes.

Copyright 2022 WFAE

Steve Harrison