RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Some supporters of former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's efforts to contest the 2016 gubernatorial election results can be sued for allegedly defaming four residents who were falsely accused of voting twice, a North Carolina appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The complaint the Southern Coalition for Social Justice brought forward in 2017 could pave the way for lawmakers and their supporters to be penalized for making inaccurate voter fraud claims in future elections.
The unanimous ruling from the three appeals court judges allows a trial court to hear the case against the Pat McCrory Committee Legal Defense Fund and the Virginia-based Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky law firm named in the complaint.
The judges also decided, however, that William Clark Porter, a GOP official in Greensboro whose signature was on one of the election protests that was filed, is entitled to a legal defense that would likely clear him of defamation claims because he participated in a “quasi-judicial election protest proceeding.”
“Mr. Porter was not the puppet master. He was the puppet, and obviously, he did make serious allegations against our clients, but this is a good ruling for us,” said Allison Riggs, who leads the voting rights program at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “We believe that we now can proceed against the masterminds of this concerted effort to defame North Carolina voters.”
McCrory is not personally named as a defendant in the case that involves four Brunswick and Guilford County voters. His backers could appeal Tuesday's decision to the state Supreme Court.
The law firm alleged to have ghost-written the election protest Porter submitted did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Craig Schauer, a Raleigh-based attorney who defended McCrory's supporters in a March appeals court hearing, argued at the time that Porter, the law firm and legal defense fund all had the absolute right to make statements about unlawful ballots shortly after the November 2016 election, regardless of whether the comments were defamatory. Schauer added that the lawsuit could stifle free speech by discouraging members of the public from voicing their concerns about possible voting irregularities.
Riggs said her organization is likely to focus on the law firm and legal defense fund, though it could choose to ask the Supreme Court to make Porter more susceptible to a defamation lawsuit.
The lawsuit accuses the supporters of participating in a “civil conspiracy” that harmed voters’ reputations. As a result, they are seeking damages in excess of $25,000.
McCrory lost the election by 10,277 votes, or 0.22 percentage points, which fell outside the 10,000-vote recount threshold. The former governor conceded the race nearly a month after his defeat. He is now running for an open U.S. Senate seat.
Asked at a Mount Airy event last month if he accepted that he lost the 2016 election fair and square, McCrory replied, “Yes. I still have questions about ballot harvesting, but I conceded the election.”
While it's been nearly five years since McCrory's gubernatorial loss, Riggs said the lawsuit carries extra importance because of former President Donald Trump's repeated lies that he won the last presidential election.
“What we saw happen in the 2016 election was a precursor to the big lie that we saw in the 2020 election where losing candidates, rather than accept loss, lie and malign voters, defame voters and sow distrust in the electoral processes and systems," Riggs said.
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Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.