A Mecklenburg County grand jury indicted former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon this week on an election fraud charge stemming from an illegal vote Cannon cast last fall, prosecutors announced Tuesday.
The charge, which came down Monday, is rare – even in a state embroiled in a bitter debate over how its elections are run.
As a convicted felon, Cannon lost his right to vote last summer. But the Observer reported that the Democrat cast a ballot Oct. 30 at an early voting site. That’s a felony under North Carolina law.
At the time of his vote, Cannon had already pleaded guilty and was waiting to start his prison sentence for accepting more than $50,000 from FBI undercover agents. He is serving 44 months at a federal prison camp in West Virginia. Given good behavior and other incentives, he could be back in Charlotte in less than half that time.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Cannon and his attorneys told a federal judge in November that the former mayor did not realize he was breaking the law when he voted at Ballantyne Commons. “I did this without thinking,” Cannon said. “The light didn’t come on that day.”
U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney placed him under house detention until he reported to Federal Correctional Institution Morgantown later that month.
However, voting fraud is a state crime. According to a statement from the office of Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray, Cannon’s case was taken before the grand jury after the State Board of Elections turned over the results of an investigation into the former mayor’s illegal vote.
A spokeswoman for Murray, who is a Republican, declined further comment.
Joshua Lawson, spokesman for the N.C. Board of Elections, said the agency’s report on Cannon is part of an active criminal investigation and declined to release it Tuesday to the Observer.
“Voter fraud is a felony, no matter who perpetrates it. We applaud the thorough work of the District Attorney’s Office,” Lawson said in an email. “State Board of Elections investigators have cooperated fully with County authorities at every phase of this proceeding.”
If the case goes forward, Cannon would be tried in Charlotte, legal experts say.
His attorney, James Ferguson of Charlotte, questioned the purpose of the indictment, given that his client already is in prison and has admitted making a mistake when he voted.
“I’m asking myself the question that many, many people will be asking,” Ferguson said. “Patrick Cannon publicly acknowledged voting inadvertently, that it was a mistake on his part, a mistake he regretted very much. A federal judge who heard the case decided that the appropriate sanction was to place him under house arrest. So what is the purpose of this indictment under these circumstances?”
Cannon appeared at the polling place in October with his wife, and he signed in using his own name. Despite his arrest, conviction and sentencing, he was still listed at the time as an eligible voter on state election records.
Cannon’s vote was never counted.
Problem or not?
Voter fraud has become an emotional touchstone in a partisan and legal fight over .North Carolina elections.
Republicans say they were protecting the integrity of the vote when they passed a new set of election rules in 2013 that are now the subject of a federal lawsuit. Voter IDs will be required in North Carolina for the first time next year.
Democrats and voting advocates say the laws are aimed at minorities, the elderly and young voters and that the instances of voter fraud are too few to justify the new restrictions.
Last year, Republican-appointed state elections officials said an outside investigation had uncovered thousands of cases of potential voter fraud in state ballots. Critics say those numbers were highly exaggerated.
A 2013 memo from the State Elections Board said most allegations of voter fraud prove to be “unfounded, lack criminal intent or cannot be substantiated.” From 2000 to 2012, some 600 cases were referred to district attorneys out of millions of votes cast. The memo did not detail how many of those referrals ended in criminal charges.
Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, said the most frequent fraud cases, such as Cannon’s, involve disenfranchised felons attempting to vote. Under North Carolina law, felons regain their voting privileges not when they’re released from custody but after they serve out their probation.
Hall applauded Cannon’s indictment. “We do want fraud stopped,” he said.
No hat or sunglasses
Reaction in Raleigh on Tuesday reflected partisan lines.
“I thought we didn’t have voter fraud,” said state Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican who has cited Cannon’s arrest and conviction as a reason behind legislative efforts to remove Charlotte Douglas International Airport from city control.
Rep. Rodney Moore, a Charlotte Democrat, said the indictment resurrects an unhappy chapter that has tarnished Cannon’s hometown.
“Just hope we can get past Patrick. The city needs to move on. I continue to pray for my friend,” Moore said.
Veteran defense attorneys in Charlotte said Cannon almost certainly will not receive additional jail time, even with a conviction.
“Likely probation,” said Charlotte lawyer David Rudolf. “He’s guilty mostly of stupidity.”
However, James Wyatt, another of the city’s prominent trial lawyers, said the new state charge could block Cannon’s release into a federal halfway house if it’s not taken care of ahead of time.
While the state can hold off on prosecuting the case until after after Cannon’s release, Wyatt said Ferguson and co-counsel Jacob Sussman can file to force the state to act.
Attorney George Laughrun said he doesn’t understand why prosecutors would go through the trouble and expense of charging Cannon with this type of crime.
“You’ve got to have intent,” he said. “It’s not like he tried to sneak in right before the polls closed. He wasn’t wearing sunglasses and a hat.”
Laughrun said the indictment raises the question on whether prosecutors are “piling on.”
“Obviously, he’s lost his position. He’s gone through public humiliation. He’s a convicted felon,” Laughrun said. “What’s the state of North Carolina got to gain for persecuting Pat Cannon on voter fraud?” Staff Writer Jim Morrill contributed.