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North Carolina party recognition for groups seeking RFK Jr., West on ballot stopped for now

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during the Libertarian National Convention at the Washington Hilton in Washington, Friday. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Jose Luis Magana
/
Associated Press
File: Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during the Libertarian National Convention at the Washington Hilton in Washington.

A divided North Carolina election board decided Wednesday to scrutinize further the attempts by political organizations to become official state parties by collecting signatures, with the goals of their supporters to get Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West on this fall's presidential ballot in the battleground state.

The We The People party and Justice for All Party of North Carolina initiated petition drives to receive official party designations. That required a smaller fraction of the valid signatures from registered and qualified voters than Kennedy, an author and environmental lawyer, and West, a professor and progressive activist, would have needed if they sought to run statewide as independent candidates.

State elections officials confirmed to the board Wednesday that the groups had turned in more valid signatures than the 13,865 that were required. Based on those numbers, the two Republican board members backed motions to formally recognize the We The People party and Justice for All Party so they could field candidates.

But the three Democrats on the board voted against the motions. They agreed more examination was needed of the organization's operations, including how signatures were collected, how party volunteers presented the petition's goals to voters and what information was placed on petition lists.

Speaking about the We The People effort, Democratic board member Siobhan O’Duffy Millen said she was concerned whether volunteers misrepresented Kennedy as an independent candidate, rather than someone who could be the party's nominee. An independent candidate would have to collect at least 83,188 qualifying signatures.

The “delay is not intended to deny your status as a party,” Board Chair Alan Hirsch told We The People leaders participating in the 3 1/2-hour online meeting. ”It’s just to do our job and to be sure that ... the people that signed the petition know the purpose and intent” of the proposed party, he added.

The board tentatively set a July 9 board meeting to reconsider the groups' requests.

Adding presidential candidates further raise the stakes and uncertainty about who will win North Carolina’s 16 electoral votes. Republican Donald Trump won the state in both 2016 and in 2020, but his margin over Democrat Joe Biden in 2020 was less than 1.4 percentage points.

Not including North Carolina, Kennedy’s campaign has said he is officially on the ballot in eight states and has submitted signatures in 10 more states. The West campaign said it has secured ballot access in seven other states.

Republican board members criticized the decisions by the Democratic majority, saying it wasn't the board's place to question the motives of organization officials.

“I think these people have done everything that they needed to do to comply with the law,” board member Kevin Lewis said. Another Republican member, Four Eggers, said the Democrats were yielding to political groups who filed objections to the certification requests.

Clear Choice Action, a group affiliated with a super PAC aligned with President Joe Biden’s allies, wrote the board asking that its members reject the We The People and Justice for All efforts, saying the petitions were riddled with invalid signatures or contained misleading information. Representatives of the petitioning groups defended their activities.

And the state Democratic Party said the groups were trying to circumvent state law by using the guise of a political party to bypass the more strenuous qualification process for independent candidates.

National Republicans criticized Wednesday's board's decisions, with a Trump campaign spokesperson also accusing North Carolina Democrats of working “to game the system to help Biden.”

Another third party seeking official status on Wednesday — the Constitution Party — also was denied for now its formal recognition, which would be reconsidered next month. Hirsch cited a question involving the home address of the group's chair.

The Constitution Party had been an official party in 2020, but it failed to perform well enough in the election to remain one. The national Constitution Party this year nominated anti-abortion activist Randall Terry as its presidential candidate.

State law says parties must submit their candidate lists for races other than for president and vice president to the state board by July 1.

Parties are otherwise told to submit their presidential tickets by mid-August so ballots can be prepared, a board spokesperson said recently. Hirsch said he believes that a federal judge's decision two years ago involving Green Party recognition would mean other candidates could be added to ballots after July 1.