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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A day after Connor Harney received anonymous text messages asking him to retract his signature from a petition to qualify Green Party candidates for the November ballot in North Carolina, he said unidentified canvassers brought their “attempts to interfere with democracy” to his doorstep.
A woman claiming to represent the state Board of Elections appeared at his home in Fuquay-Varina in late June, a checklist of street addresses in hand, and repeated the request, he said.
When Harney — a 31-year-old historian at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro — refused and questioned the woman’s affiliation, she left with a warning: If Green Party candidates gain ballot access, they could take away votes from Democrats and hand the GOP victories in tight races, namely the Senate race between Democrat Cheri Beasley and Trump-backed Republican Rep. Ted Budd.
“I told her, ‘What you’re doing now makes Democrats look very desperate,’” said Harney, a registered independent. “But, more importantly, it goes against the democratic process because you’re actively trying to ensure another party doesn’t make it onto the ballot.”
A dispute over the Green Party's stalled effort to field a Senate candidate has exposed the Democratic Party's bareknuckle efforts to prevent the progressive group from siphoning away crucial votes come November.
The state Board of Elections' Democratic majority rejected the Green Party petition in a 3-2 vote on June 30, citing petition sheets with nearly identical handwriting, incomplete personal information, duplicate names and deceased signatories.
The Green Party then sued as the board investigates the validity of its signatures, alleging Democratic interference in the petitioning process and asking the court to reverse the board’s decision.
Harney is one of more than a dozen signers mentioned in the lawsuit who reported receiving intimidating messages, calls or home visits.
These signers said some canvassers declined to identify themselves or falsely claimed to represent the Green Party or the elections board. Others said they were sent by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – the driving force working to elect Beasley and other Democratic Senate candidates nationwide.
With the Senate in a 50-50 deadlock, North Carolina is one of the few states where Democrats have strong potential to pick up a seat, said Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper. Despite the stakes, he found the Democrats' tactics “jaw dropping.”
“This is not politics as usual,” Cooper said. “We expect political parties to want to win – that’s not the problem. It crosses the line when they appear to be resorting to intimidation and, in a few cases, lies.”
The Democrats acknowledge asking signers to remove their names, but claim they were merely trying to make sure potential supporters weren't being tricked.
"We reached out to voters to ensure they had not been deceived,” DSCC spokesperson Amanda Sherman said.
Sherman said the DSCC is funneling $30 million into North Carolina and eight other Senate battleground states through its “Defend the Majority” campaign, the largest investment in field organizing the committee has ever made this early in the campaign cycle.
Though Democrats had little success dissuading progressive voters from backing the Green Party ballot bid, their lawyers, including Elias Law Group, general counsel for the DSCC, lobbied the board to scrutinize irregularities among the signatures.
With its petition rejected, the Green Party missed the July 1 deadline to nominate its candidates for the November ballot. Now the party's choice for Senate, Matthew Hoh, could appear only by court order or legislative action from the General Assembly, which concluded its work session on July 1, elections board spokesperson Patrick Gannon said.
The board will present the findings of its fraud investigation on Monday, one week before the Green Party lawsuit gets its first hearing on Aug. 8.
Hoh’s campaign manager Rose Ruby said their uphill battle to reach the ballot illuminates the many barriers third-party candidates face nationwide. But she embraces Hoh's role as a disruptor of the status quo and says Democrats have only themselves to blame if the Greens “spoil” their election.
“The spoiler label is an antidemocratic characterization of what it means to have a healthy democracy,” Ruby said. “If Democrats don’t want to fear that there’s a split in their vote, then it’s their job to earn those votes and to put out the kind of policies that the Green Party is getting out.”
Schoenbaum 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. Follow her at twitter.com/H_Schoenbaum.