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Bob Hall: Cooper vetoed a SB 250, but it could make a return

Remember the schoolyard pushback to a bully’s taunts:  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

That advice doesn’t work so well in the age of social media and viral videos. Just ask Joe Golden.

After Gov. Pat McCrory narrowly lost reelection in 2016, his supporters began accusing hundreds of people of voting illegally in an apparent effort to change the election results. Joe Golden was one of the falsely accused. His name appeared in local news reports about a “massive” voter fraud scheme, and social media quickly amplified the story. A newcomer in town, Golden was shocked to see himself portrayed to neighbors as “a cheater amongst us.”

Fortunately, the Republican majority on Golden’s county board of elections put aside partisan sympathies for McCrory and dismissed the bogus charge against Golden. The same thing happened all across the state, and the use of voter fraud claims as a weapon to overturn an election failed — but the damage to reputations remained.

The State Board of Elections, led by Republicans at the time, eventually responded after shamed voters in 16 counties petitioned for changes to the form used to accuse them of fraud. The board now requires accusers to swear they have evidence of wrongdoing, not just hearsay.

We can thank Republican election officials who put allegiance to the law and public service above party loyalty for these positive steps that protect innocent voters.

Unfortunately, narrow-minded partisans are backing another scheme that could inflict social-media shaming on countless honest voters.

This new scheme, adopted recently by the General Assembly as Senate Bill 250, will use people’s responses to jury summons to create lists of “foreign citizens” who could be prosecuted if they vote. It may seem sensible, but experience shows that responses to jury duty summons are utterly unreliable, even regarding citizenship status.

For example, people who say they’ve moved outside the county often get coded as non-residents of the country or “not a citizen.” A student or soldier abroad can be labeled a foreigner. People who indicate on the summons response that they are not U.S. citizens may become naturalized citizens several weeks later, but because S.B. 250 requires disclosure of their response they could be hounded as “illegal aliens” by anti-fraud enthusiasts.

The harassment can be intense.

A few years ago, William Romero started getting accusatory phone calls from a vigilante group that misused N.C. jury records. Romero explained that he became a naturalized citizen months after his jury summons and later registered to vote. But the harassment continued. The group even posted a video of their leader confronting Romero’s family at their home, describing Romero as a non-citizen, illegal voter. The video received thousands of replays.

Romero’s story and others like it should have alerted legislators about the dangers of S.B. 250. Republicans especially should have heeded a 2017 report by the Republican-led State Board of Elections that emphasized the need for a rigorous process to identify non-citizens because many databases, including DMV records, have outdated, unreliable data.

Despite the warnings of election experts and real-life stories, S.B. 250 passed. Thankfully, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill last month, but now he’s being shamed as soft on foreign criminals. Some lawmakers even want to revive the bill early next year to further taunt him.

Sad!

We should applaud officials, regardless of party, who understand the damage done by bullies and name-callers. Whenever voter fraud accusations are used as a weapon for political gain, honest voters are more harmed than helped.

Bob Hall is a jury commissioner in his home county and former executive director of Democracy North Carolina.

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