Jim Womack insists he is not a conspiracy theorist.
“I’m not one of those guys that runs around saying the election was stolen,” said Womack, a former Lee County Commissioner. “You can make a case that the election was manipulated.”
But, he added, “I don’t think you can certainly make a case of widespread voter fraud in a coordinated fashion through networks or machines or whatever.”
Womack is president of the recently formed North Carolina Election Integrity Team, or NCEIT, a grassroots organization whose mission, according to its website, is “to establish a trusted, statewide infrastructure comprising a network of county election integrity task forces with trained, certified, and geographically positioned operators to ensure secure and legitimate election processes.”
Womack called the 2020 presidential election a “train wreck.”
“We should learn from the train wreck and seek to try to avoid those kinds of problems in the future by improving our laws,” Womack added.
NCEIT is a chapter of the Election Integrity Network, which was launched by N.C.-based attorney Cleta Mitchell. Mitchell participated in the Jan. 2021 phone call Donald Trump made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, urging him to search for nearly 12,000 votes that could turn Trump’s 2020 defeat into a victory.
“Our mentor is Cleta Mitchell, she is a renowned election law attorney on the national scale,” Womack said.
‘Election integrity’ activist claims 2020 was plagued by ‘malfeasances’
Womack and Mitchell met with top Republican lawmakers at the state legislature as they worked on their most recent omnibus elections bill.
Mitchell is also senior legal fellow at the Conservative Partnership Institute, a think tank whose senior partner is Mark Meadows, one-time North Carolina congressman and the former Trump chief of staff and now indicted as a co-conspirator in Georgia’s RICO case over alleged efforts to unlawfully reverse the 2020 presidential race.
Womack claimed many “malfeasances” occurred in the 2020 election, especially involving drop boxes and ballot harvesting. These were COVID pandemic-era accommodations that were not allowed or used in North Carolina in 2020.
However, they were used in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—all key swing states that helped Joe Biden win the 2020 race, Womack said. In these states, Trump acolytes filed dozens of lawsuits predicated on false claims of election fraud that were tossed out of court.
Nonetheless, in the name of bolstering election integrity, the North Carolina General Assembly’s Republican majority has pushed for substantial change to the state’s voting rules, in ways that mirror the objectives laid out by Mitchell and Womack’s groups.
The omnibus bill sent to the governor last week would eliminate a three-day grace period for counting mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day, and has received support from the North Carolina Election Integrity Team.
“So you can actually have a result on Election Day as opposed to waiting two or three weeks,” Womack said.
The grace period has been in place since unanimous bipartisan approval in 2009.
But election day results are never final or certified until 10 days later, after the county canvass, the statutory post-election audit that includes hand-to-eye counts of ballots from randomly selected precincts. And mail-in ballots from military personnel and other citizens overseas postmarked by Election Day, which can arrive up to nine days later, are counted under state law—something Womack, as a West Point graduate and retired Lieutenant Colonel certainly knows well.
GOP elections bill addresses a lot of NCEIT’s goals
The legislation prohibits the use of private funds for elections administration. Such funds, especially so-called “Zuck Bucks,” have become a target of Republicans and 2020 election deniers.
In 2020, when cash-strapped elections administrations across the country desperately needed funds for extra personal protective equipment and disposable pens to ensure safe polling sites during the COVID-19 pandemic, donors, which included Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and the Schwarzenegger Institute, stepped up to help. Facebook suspended Trump’s account in 2021 after he posted statements that were deemed to be supporting violence associated with the Jan. 6 insurrection.
In Zuckerberg’s case, the donations were distributed by the Center for Election Innovation and Research, whose executive director and founder is David Becker. Becker also helped launch the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, when he was with the Pew Charitable Trusts, and has assailed Donald Trump for the ex-President’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election has been a target of the partisan right.
Right-wing groups have gone after so-called “Zuck Bucks” and sought to disparage ERIC, a multi-state consortium conceived to help partner states maintain cleaner voter rolls by sharing information on the movement and death of voters.
This year’s budget, which state House and Senate Republicans are still negotiating, contains a provision that would prohibit North Carolina from joining ERIC, even though Republican legislators OK’d joining the consortium last year.
The GOP elections bill would also give greater latitude to partisan poll observers, another key objective of Mitchell and Womack’s.
“That builds confidence across the country and that’s why it’s so important to have poll observers there representing all the parties that can assure themselves that no one party has controlled or manipulated the election,” Womack said.
Will partisan poll observers bolster transparency or intimidate voters?
Under the bill, partisan poll observers would be permitted to listen to conversations between a voter and precinct official inside the polling site or at curbside voting–as long as the discussion is related to elections administration.
“Is that going to be intimidating for people who are there at the polling place, you know, to have these observers so close?” asked Lekha Shupeck, the state outreach director for Documented, an investigative watchdog group that tracks voter suppression efforts.
Shupeck previously worked with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the organization chaired by former Obama Administration Attorney General Eric Holder.
Poll observers play an important role in elections, Shupeck said.
“The problem comes when that access is, you know, legislated in a certain way that’s going to impede other people’s ability or intimidate people or be disruptive,” she added.
After the 2022 primaries, the State Board of Elections surveyed county elections directors about issues at polling sites. Officials in 15 counties reported witnessing poll observers who violated rules of conduct in place at the time by talking to and intimidating voters, frequently exiting and re-entering the voting area to call their party headquarters, and trying to enter restricted areas where ballot data were being uploaded.
Jim Womack said he is pleased lawmakers are attempting to codify what poll observers can do but wishes they had gone farther. Model legislation his group drafted and that formed the basis of an earlier House bill on poll observer conduct would have instituted something he calls the “five-foot rule:” the distance a poll observer could stand from a precinct official or voter.
“We also think there should have been language about poll observers being able to get up close to the election machines,” he said.
Lekha Shupeck said she thinks people like Jim Womack and Cleta Mitchell genuinely believe election integrity in the United States is under threat.
“The people who are working on that side are not working from a place of reality and facts,” she said. “They’re working from sort of their feelings about the particular issue not based on evidence.”
While Jim Womack says he’s not a conspiracy theorist, he cites questionable sources in his claims about problems with the 2020 election. One such source was 2000 Mules, which Womack initially called a movie before correcting himself and relabeling it a documentary.
Made by conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, the video has been widely discredited as a pro-Trump propaganda vehicle alleging abuse of ballot drop-boxes. Former Trump Administration Attorney General William Barr dismissed the video in testimony before the House Committee looking into the January 6th insurrection. Barr said that 2000 Mules did not change his opinion that voter fraud did not play a role in the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
But it’s with such beliefs in mind that Jim Womack and Cleta Mitchell helped shape the legislation now on Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.