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North Carolina Supreme Court hears case involving false claims of voter fraud from 2016

The front steps of the North Carolina Supreme Court
Aaron Mendelson
Center for Public Integrity
A file photo of the Supreme Court of the State of North Carolina in Raleigh. The high court will determine whether lawyers behind false claims of voter fraud can be sued for defamation.

Pat McCrory did not concede the 2016 governor's race until a month after Election Day, ending a re-election bid he lost to Democrat Roy Cooper in a tight contest.

But it was an ad hoc group called the Pat McCrory Committee Legal Defense Fund that hired out-of-state lawyers to spearhead a challenge to those results. The lawyers enlisted registered North Carolina voters who supported the Republican candidate to file election protests across the state, falsely accusing duly registered voters of engaging in fraud like double voting, a felony.

Now the conservative majority North Carolina Supreme Court will decide whether those lawyers and the committee could face a defamation lawsuit for their role in the false voter fraud claims.

Lawyers for the falsely accused voters Louis Bouvier, Jr., Karen Niehans, Samual Niehans and Joseph Golden, said their clients "are the collateral damage of Defendants’ effort to sow confusion and create post-election chaos." Furthermore, the plaintiffs say they suffered unwanted media attention, public ridicule because of the false accusations.

In 2021, the state Court of Appeals upheld a trial court decision, ruling that while the North Carolina voters who filed the false claims are immune from legal liability the lawyers and committee behind that legal effort are not.

That is the issue the Supreme Court will hear in oral arguments this Thursday, whether the appellate court ruling should be overturned.

In their brief for the Supreme Court, the lawyers facing defamation claims argued their case has been mischaracterized by the plaintiffs.

For example, the lawyers, with the firm Holtzman, Vogel, Baran, Torchinsky & Josefiak, said the original election protest did not use the words "voter fraud," "felony," or "crime." The brief said that based on "early voting files from other states, it appears that [a number of] individual[s] cast ballots in both North Carolina and another state," a "clear violation of North Carolina and federal election laws."

And in their appellate brief, the lawyers fighting the defamation claims argue that legal precedent supports extending attorneys in their position absolute immunity.

Only the high court's five conservative justices will hear the oral arguments. The tribunal's two liberal justices — Allison Riggs and Anita Earls — recused themselves from the case because they previously represented the accused voters.

A post-election audit of the 2016 elections by the North Carolina State Board of Elections found the "evidence suggests that participation by ineligible voters is neither rampant nor non-existent in North Carolina."

Of the nearly 4.8 million North Carolina voters who cast ballots in the 2016 general election, the state board audit found "approximately 0.01% of ballots were cast by ineligible voters" and that most incidents were "isolated and uncoordinated."

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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