A few weeks after the November election, Joseph Golden's phone rang.
On the line was an official from the Brunswick County Board of Elections, who called to tell Golden something entirely unexpected: the North Carolina newcomer had been accused of voting both in Maryland, where he had previously lived and voted in the primary, and in North Carolina, where he moved in April 2016. Golden laughed, and the official urged him not to worry.
"And two days later, it ended up in the front of the newspaper. So that was sort of a strange way to say, 'Welcome to North Carolina,'" Golden says.
The baseless complaint was later withdrawn. But even so, the fact that it happened—that it appeared in the paper, that someone on social media chided him as a "cheater in our midst"—bothered Golden.
The allegation—and hundreds like it—came after Governor Roy Cooper eked out a victory over then-governor Pat McCrory; in response, Republicans filed voter protests in nearly forty counties, alleging ballots were cast by felons, dead voters, and people who voted in more than one state.
According to a recent report by the nonpartisan voting rights group Democracy North Carolina, more than 95 percent of the six hundred protests that were filed were false. (The "fewer than thirty" that were wrongly cast or counted, the report says, "were apparently cast by accident or out of ignorance of the voting rules for [people on probation], rather than an intent to cheat.")
Though most of the complaints were dismissed, the process had real consequences, the report argues. Not only was the election canvass delayed and resources diverted, but also, "For weeks, media reports bombarded the public with allegations of voter fraud and dozens of innocent voters had their reputations impugned and lives disrupted."
Now Democracy NC is eyeing a potential remedy—or at least, proposed changes that would make filing election protests more complex. On Monday, attorneys for the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement held a hearing on amendments to the state's election rules.
Many of the tweaks are wonky, but changes related to filing election protests elicited strong reactions from voting rights advocates and state Republicans, who clashed over rules that would apply stricter standards to filing voter protests.
Under the proposals, the voter protest form would be extended from one page to about three and would require filers to disclose whether a candidate, political party, organization, or other person asked them to submit the request.
The form would require submitters to provide all factual claims in support of their protest, and people filing protests would have to sign a statement acknowledging that submitting fraudulent declarations is a felony. It would also require attorneys to disclose if they are working with a person who filed election protests.
That's significant because almost all of the postelection protests, according to Democracy NC, were filed by a Virginia-based law firm founded by Jill Vogel, a Republican contender for lieutenant governor in Virginia.
While most of the hearing's speakers supported the changes, Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina GOP, argued that the protest-form changes were "nothing short of shocking" and would discourage protests.
"The board cannot require a protest be subject to a sworn form under the penalty of perjury," he said. "Those requirements on the form are unduly burdensome and risk the chilling of the right of voters to submit protests."
Thomas Stark—an attorney for the N.C. Republican Party who said he wanted to speak as a Durham voter and not as an employee of the GOP—similarly said the proposed rule "seeks to chill the protest process" and claimed that deceased people and undocumented immigrants voted in the election.
"Any person that goes in and presents themself and identifies themself and states their address and is on the voter roll votes. We don't have voter ID," he said.
(In April, the NCSBE reported that 508 people had voted illegally in November. One would have been stopped by voter ID.)
For Golden, the problem isn't that the system is too permissive of fraudulent voters but that the mechanism to accuse people like him is too lenient.
"I think the intent of this thing was to come up with as many allegations and things like this to discredit the entire election process," he says. "And I just find it hard to believe that a few individuals or a bunch of people getting together could take a process like that and try to chip away at the credibility of it and have no real tangible evidence afterwards."
Monday was the last day to submit public comments on the rules. However, it's still a long road ahead.
Attorneys for the election board presided over the meeting because—owing to a legal spat between Cooper and the GOP-dominated legislature over changes the General Assembly made to the election board last year—no board members have been appointed.
Once they are, the board members will consider the proposals.