RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s state elections board on Tuesday removed two local election officials who had refused to certify their county's 2022 results after officials determined they violated state law.
The state board voted unanimously to dismiss Surry County elections secretary Jerry Forestieri and board member Timothy DeHaan in one of the strongest disciplinary actions taken against local officials across the U.S. who have delayed or refused to certify election results. Controversies over election certification have roiled mostly rural counties across the country as conspiracy theories about voting machines have spread widely among conservatives.
Forestieri and DeHaan had questioned the legitimacy of state election law and court decisions disallowing photo ID checks and voter residency challenges. They falsely claimed in a letter that the vote was “illegal” and “very uncertain.”
“These rulings have stripped the election process of the trustworthiness they were designed to protect,” they wrote. “Since then, the general welfare of the citizens of North Carolina has been damaged by a growing lack of trust in our election process.”
The two circulated the letter during a canvas meeting last fall when county election officials convened to certify the accuracy of the vote count. DeHaan ultimately signed on to certify, while Forestieri did not.
State Board Chair Damon Circosta said Tuesday that county elections officials cannot decline to implement state board directives or court orders they disagree with.
“Those who administer elections must follow the law as it is written, not how they want it to be,” Circosta said.
The North Carolina Supreme Court, which at the time had a Democratic majority, upheld a trial court ruling late last year that declared a 2018 voter ID law unconstitutional and tainted by racial bias. But the high court's new Republican majority opted to revisit the case earlier this month.
Bob Hall, former executive director of the prominent voting rights group Democracy North Carolina, filed complaints with the state board that prompted the Tuesday hearing. He said the men's refusal to accept the legitimacy of the state's election laws directly conflicts with their oath of office and responsibility to exercise their duties according to those laws.
Election conspiracies in recent years have undermined public confidence, led to threats against election workers in North Carolina and other states, and inspired efforts to ban voting machines altogether. They’ve also been used by a small number of local officials across the country to justify refusing to certify election results, as was the case in Surry County.
The ousted county officials had falsely alleged that court rulings gave “protection to felonious voter fraud” and raised the possibility of “election theft.”
Last year, state officials in New Mexico had to obtain a court order to compel officials in Otero County, a conservative community that backed former President Donald Trump with nearly 62% of the vote in 2020, to certify results from their primary election. No commissioners in New Mexico were removed from office for refusing to certify results, according to state election officials.
There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting equipment in the 2020 or 2022 elections.
Election experts fear that what happened last year could be a preview of what’s to come after the 2024 presidential election should a candidate once again refuse to concede.
Election officials have spent six years shoring up their cybersecurity defenses and adding equipment and testing to ensure election technology is protected. Much of the country now uses paper ballots, which ensures a record can be used to recalculate results should any manipulation or error occur.
Yet this hasn’t stopped the false claims from being spread by Trump and his allies, who continue to travel the country meeting with local officials and holding community forums highlighting election conspiracies.
Hannah 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.
Associated Press writer Christina Cassidy contributed from Atlanta.