RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A Republican member of the North Carolina elections board worked closely with local officials in their effort to eliminate a heavily Democratic voting site, a plan a judge ruled was intended to suppress voter turnout, according to hundreds of emails reviewed by The Associated Press.
The state Board of Elections is supposed to act as a neutral arbiter when policy disputes arise involving county elections boards. The emails show that Paul J. Foley worked closely behind the scenes with GOP officials in Watauga County as they crafted a plan to eliminate the early voting site at Appalachian State University.
Foley is already under scrutiny for failing to recuse himself for 17 months from the state election agency's investigation into political donations from an Oklahoma sweepstakes mogul represented by his law firm. He recused himself only after staff learned the mogul had paid nearly $1.3 million to his firm. Details of that investigation are to be released Wednesday.
The emails between Foley and Republican officials in Watauga discussing the removal of the longstanding Appalachian State voting site were provided to AP by Pam Williamson, a Democrat who was among those who successfully sued to keep the location open for the 2014 election. She received the emails following a public records request, and the state elections board confirmed their authenticity.
"Foley was right in the middle, advising GOP movers and shakers in our county to move forward with the plan," she said. "It's our contention that things were decided before the board met."
Foley, a lawyer for the state Republican Party appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory to the state elections board in 2013, declined an interview request and did not respond to emailed questions.
Voting laws have come under scrutiny in North Carolina since the Republican-led legislature passed a sweeping election law in 2013 that in part reduced early voting and ended same-day registration.
The Watauga conflict originated when the local board's two Republicans and one Democrat couldn't agree on the early-voting plan. The state board stepped in and voted to support the county board's Republicans in their plan to eliminate the on-campus voting site.
Seven county voters sued, saying the plan burdened younger voters. A state superior court judge agreed, saying the closure was to "discourage student voting."
The lawsuit contended Foley's "continual collaboration" with Stacy Eggers IV, the Watauga County government attorney and a former local elections board member, revealed a "partisan motive" behind the action.
Their correspondence, reviewed by AP, frequently refers to "the opposition" and "the other side."
In early August, 2013, as a new county board with a Republican majority was about to be sworn in, Eggers asked Foley to examine proposals he expected would pass, including removing the early voting site from the university's Plemmons Student Union.
That was the county's only early voting site to vote Democrat in the 2008 and 2012 presidential election and the 2012 governor's race. Eggers said he wanted Foley to vet the plan because "it would be embarrassing" if state elections officials overturned it.
In an August 8, 2013 email, Foley responded that "unless something is out of whack with reality, then I don't think it is likely for the State Board to have any issues with it."
Foley spoke in favor of the plan before the state board and did not mention his involvement. The board voted 4-1 in favor of upholding it.
Chuck Winfree, a Greensboro Republican who served on the state board until 2013, said it is not unusual for a board member to communicate with local officials about various issues. But, he said, Foley should have told his fellow board members the level of his involvement and potentially recused himself.
"The last thing you want if you're a lawyer or a party before the board is for someone to have an agenda you don't know about," he said. "It would be hard to say you've gotten a fair hearing, and that would undermine the credibility of the board."
Weiss reported from Charlotte. Follow him at http://Twitter.com/mitchsweiss
Follow Biesecker at http://Twitter.com/mbieseck