Election Board Orders Formal Hearing On Primary Protest

Protest Claims Illegal Voter Guide Swayed Outcome Of Race Decided By 52 Votes 

SMITHFIELD – The Johnston County Board of Elections held a preliminary hearing this afternoon (Thursday) on a election protest filed following the March 2020 primary election in the District 1 race for Johnston County Commissioner.

In a unanimous vote, the board ruled sufficient evidence was presented today by Johnny Hill to conduct a formal hearing on June 24th to hear additional testimony.

Mr. Hill filed a complaint after a “fake voter guide” that closely resembled Johnston County GOP voter guides were handed out during the March 3rd, 2020 Primary. The guides were distributed at multiple voting precincts in Johnston County.  He alleged the voter guides violated election law and cast doubt on the outcome of the County Commissioner Republican Primary race between Michelle Pace Davis and Fred Smith.

Mrs. Davis led in early voting but after the March 3rd primary lost by 47 votes. After provisional ballots were certified the following week, Smith’s lead grew to 52 votes.

This voter guide is the center of an election protest filed in the Johnston County Commission District 1 Republican Primary held on March 3, 2020.

Smith received 9,612 votes to Davis’ 9,560 in certified election returns.

“During this primary an unregistered political action committee distributed a fake voter guide at various precincts throughout the county and violated the law by not being registered with election officials,” Mr. Hill said during the telephone meeting. “The PAC was not registered with the election board at the time of this activity and this activity was illegal. I am protesting the conduct of the political action committee.”

Hill referenced a university research article that suggested flyers handed out at polling precincts could manipulate votes by as much as 10 percent.  Nearly 20,000 votes were cast between the two candidates.

“I believe absolutely, no doubt, it was enough to cast doubt on the results of the election. Coming out of the early voting period there was a large lead for the losing candidate,” Hill told the Johnston County Election Board.

“Many many voters show up not knowing who they are going to vote for, who they’re going to vote for, and they trust these third party pieces. These types of flyers influence the outcome of an election. If we remove that activity from an election, would the results of the election change? I believe possibly it could. It leaves it in doubt at this point… The ballots being passed out that day was an illegal activity.”

Hill said he has video “that spills the beans for a lack of better words” reportedly showing the voter guides being distributed by multiple people hired from a staffing firm. Hill said he wanted to show the video but was unable to do so because of the telephonic meeting.

Attorney John Branch, representing the Fred Smith campaign, requested to address the allegations made in Mr. Hill’s protest.  Chairperson Gordon Woodruff told Branch this was a preliminary hearing and the board was only accepting evidence of the protest itself.

Election board member Deborah Hooker said, “Something that appears to be a slate of candidates on election day does influence how people vote. There is also the early vote lead the losing candidate had. In my mind, these are pretty strong indicators (Johnny Hill) met the need for probable cause.”

The Board voted unanimously Mr. Hill met the evidentiary requirements needed during a preliminary hearing and granted him a formal hearing on June 24th at 10:00am at the Johnston County Agricultural Center. The Ag Center was selected due to its size and being able to accommodate an in-person meeting, while still meeting CDC social distancing requirements.

If the county election board rules in favor of Mr. Hill during the June 24th formal hearing, their findings will be forwarded to the NC Board of Elections in Raleigh who will then determine if a new election should be held in the District 1 race.

State Board of Elections Voter Guide Complaint
In an unrelated complaint, a voter provided JoCoReport with an formal grievance they filed in March 2020 with the NC Board of Elections also claiming the voter guide was illegal and should be investigated.

NC Board of Elections spokesperson Patrick Gannon said state law prohibits the NC BOE from commenting on any possible investigations. “Campaign finance investigations are confidential. We cannot confirm whether or not a complaint has been filed, or if the State Board is investigating.”