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Lawyers: Accusations against challenged voters are not libel

April 18, 2018 GMT

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A lawsuit by voters who say they were libeled should be dismissed, according to a law firm and an affiliated group that helped former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory fight a last-ditch but unsuccessful campaign to disqualify votes and win re-election in 2016.

Both sides argued over that question before a judge Wednesday in Raleigh.

The lawsuit by four voters claims the Pat McCrory Committee Legal Defense Fund, the Virginia-based law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky and four of the firm’s attorneys should be punished for wrongly accusing them of felony voting crimes.

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“This was a conspiracy to monkey with the elections machinery of North Carolina in a way to cast doubt on the election, its results and how it was going to be determined. In that context, folks got libeled,” said Pressly Millen, a lawyer representing the suing voters.

The case may be among the first voter defamation cases of its kind, election law experts said when the case was filed in February 2017. McCrory fund attorney Philip Isley said he hasn’t found any similar class-action lawsuit by voters alleging they were defamed anywhere in the country.

The case brought by voters from Guilford and Brunswick counties also seeks to represent others accused by McCrory’s Republican allies in 52 counties of voting twice and other misdeeds. The suing Guilford County voters struck back after they were wrongly identified by name and address as voting in multiple states.

Virtually all the Republican-sponsored challenges to the voters’ qualifications were rejected by the GOP-controlled state elections board a week after McCrory asked for a statewide recount, citing “serious concerns of potential voter fraud emerging across the state.” McCrory continued the failed effort to overcome an Election Day deficit at the polls for nearly a month before conceding to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

The Holtzman Vogel firm helped the McCrory post-election effort and prepared most of the voter challenges filed in the name of local residents, Millen told Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour. The Warrenton, Virginia-based law firm has often represented Republican election causes and includes a former assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

An attorney for the Holtzman Vogel law firm said the accusations that some voters cast ballots twice or were ineligible to vote as felons are claims immune from legal challenge because they were part of the legal process of challenging ballots.

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“You can’t actually challenge the outcome or the results of an election unless you can challenge the ballots and whether they were cast lawfully,” Charles Marshall said.

The claims against the fund and the Holtzman Vogel attorneys also are too general, Isley said.

“There’s not a single allegation of who was allegedly defamed, when they were defamed, where they were defamed, the contents of any alleged defamation. Nothing,” Isley said.

Baddour said he would issue a ruling later.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/emery%20dalesio