ROCKINGHAM — With the 9th Congressional District special election only days away, several voters and party leaders are concerned about the exclusion of third-party candidates.
Denise Bukovan, a registered Libertarian of the Southpark neighborhood in Mecklenburg County, said she received letters and a postcard from the Voter Participation Center that only listed Republican candidate Dan Bishop and Democrat Dan McCready.
Missing from the mailers were Libertarian Jeff Scott and Green Party candidate Allen Smith.
Bukovan said she was angry because she believes the omission was intentional.
“And the organization passes itself off as official, nonprofit and ‘non-partisan,’” she said, calling the VPC “a fraud.”
Joe Garcia of Waxhaw, also a registered Libertarian, said his stepdaughter received similar mailings.
“I thought it was obvious that they intentionally left both Jeff Scott and Allen Smith off of the mailers,” he said.
Garcia said his stepdaughter is registered unaffiliated, isn’t very political and only knows of the two third-party candidates “because I bring them up often.”
“She was surprised to see only Bishop and McCready listed on the postcard/letter from The Voter Participation Center,” he added.
According to a press release issued Aug. 28, the VPC sent out 184,000 Get-Out-the-Vote notices to people in the 9th District.
According to the subheadline, the organization targeted unregistered communities of color, unmarried women and millennials.
“After a congressional race replete with charges of obstruction of justice, perjury, and ballot tampering,” the release reads, “the residents of south-central North Carolina deserve to have their voices counted and heard.”
When asked about the mailers, VPC Chief Executive Officer Jessica Barba Brown issued the following statement:
“The Voter Participation Center is a non-profit and non-partisan organization that registers and mobilizes citizens who are under-represented in our democracy. In a recent mailing for the NC-09 election, VPC encouraged eligible voters to go to the polls and vote. While the letters specifically mention the leading Republican and Democratic candidates, the clear goal is to get people to participate in the election. We don’t care who they vote for, just as long as they vote.”
State Libertarian Party Chair Susan Hogarth called the response “insulting.”
“This is extremely discouraging behavior,” she said. “The VPC, as a 501c3 tax-exempt nonprofit institution dedicated to encouraging people to vote, is obligated to provide unbiased information about voting choices.”
According to the IRS regulations on nonprofits engaging in political activity:
“…voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”
“The fact that they have willfully chosen to mislead their own target audience by pretending that there are only two choices shows that the organizers have little faith in real democracy or the intelligence of the people they are trying to engage,” Hogarth said. “Everyone says they want more choices and new/better ideas, but when they are offered it’s nothing but fingers-in-ears ‘lalalala-I-can’t-hear-you.’ They want a constituency that is led rather than one which is informed. And to be led without being fully informed is to be misled.”
The VPC mailings aren’t the only postcards to cause controversy in the race.
Scott sent out an email Aug. 21 to supporters regarding postcards that were sent to voters in Union County that read:
Vote Jeff Scott
Paid for by…one pissed off voter!
“My campaign has not hired any firm to provide direct mail services,” Scott said in the email. “I am unaware of any outside groups that have sent mailings out either on my behalf or against my candidacy.
“The postcard … was meant to offend the decent voters of Union County with the use of coarse language.”
Smith entered the race after the N.C. State Board of Elections ordered a redo following a fraud hearing related to an operative hired by former Republican candidate Mark Harris.
“It’s disappointing, but unfortunately it’s not surprising,” he said. “It’s difficult for a third-party candidate.”
Smith said he and Scott — who garnered 1.8 percent in the original race — have largely been ignored throughout the campaign, including not being invited to debate the other candidates.
A lot of organizations that deny third-party participation “fall back on viability,” he said.
A spokesperson for Charter, parent company of Spectrum News, told the RO last fall — when Scott was excluded from a debate with McCready and Harris — that leading candidates are invited based on predetermined criteria including polling percentage, evidence of campaigning and ballot eligibility.
A poll last October from the conservative North Carolina-based Civitas Institute showed 3 percent of the 556 voters surveyed favored Scott in the race. However, a New York Times poll failed to mention the Libertarian at all.
Bukovan said all the third-party exclusion leads to candidates being “duped” and not fully informed.
She said she was at the Matthews Alive event with Scott and spoke with hundreds of people.
“The people said there were two candidates,” she recalled. “So frustrating.
“And a third party cannot fight back because they are hugely underfunded and can’t compete with the big money of the two big parties,” Bukovan added. “So once again money, not merit, wins the game.”
But there may be even more exclusion going on.
Smith said he and Scott have heard from voters who had been to one particular early voting location in Mecklenburg County who said there were only two names on the electronic ballot.
He said it has been reported to the local board of elections.
The office had already closed Friday afternoon, so the RO was unable to ask Mecklenburg elections officials about the report.
Richmond County uses a paper ballot and all four candidates are listed, with Scott and Allen sandwiched between McCready at the top and Bishop at the bottom.
The election is Tuesday, with polls being open from 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m.
Lacking the same war chests as the major candidates, Smith and Scott have been pooling their resources and making appearances together, including being guests on Good Morning Sandhills. Saturday, they carpooled together to events in Fayetteville and Laurinburg.
“We get along real well even though we’re supposed to be opponents,” Smith said.