- The State Board of Elections and the Rockingham County Board of Elections allowed controversial Republican Joseph Gibson III on the ballot for House District 65
- Candidates for office must fill out a form regarding any of their felony convictions but can remain on the ballot if they lie
- An exception provision in North Carolina’s felony disclosure law removes a large portion of candidates for elected office from having to disclose felony charges at the time of filing
North Carolina absentee-by-mail ballots started to be sent out for the March 5 primary election on January 19. While candidate filing closed in mid-December, the question of Republican Joseph Gibson III’s candidacy in the House District 65 race was not resolved until Tuesday of that same week. Gibson’s eligibility as a candidate had been challenged over whether he had fully completed the sentences for his prior felony convictions.
The majority of the media coverage focused on Gibson’s alleged neo-Nazi beliefs, but while of prurient interest, they were not matters before the elections boards. There has been little focus on the policy failures and loopholes in the state law that have come to light due to the controversy.
During the proceedings over Gibson’s candidacy, the State Board of Elections (SBE) ruled that while state law requires candidates for the North Carolina House to disclose any felony convictions, an exception clause effectively nullifies that statute.
Also, even though while the burden of proof rests on the accused to show he is eligible to be on the ballot, the SBE accepts verbal testimony as sufficient to satisfy that requirement. Effectively, it puts the proverbial ball back in the challenger’s court to prove a candidate is ineligible to be on the ballot.
Gibson’s candidacy challenge came from Rockingham County GOP chair Diane Parnell and was assisted by the state Republican House Caucus. It is uncommon for party chairs and caucuses to challenge the candidacy of someone from their own party. However, Gibson’s substantial conviction record and alleged neo-Nazi beliefs appear to have caused an exception.
While state law doesn’t prevent anyone from running for office based on their beliefs, felons do not regain their right to vote or run for office till their sentence is completed. Furthermore, a felon’s sentence does not simply include jail time but also includes parole and the payment of any fines and fees to the state due to conviction. Gibson was convicted of a myriad of felonies in Connecticut between 1991 and 2001. Those felony convictions include 2nd-degree larceny, 3rd-degree burglary, two counts of 3rd-degree assault, and two counts of possessing a weapon in a correction institution.
The Republican House Caucus found more than 30 infractions on his records from Connecticut and North Carolina.
Parnell challenged Gibson’s eligibility, questioning if he had completed his parole sentence for his felony convictions in Connecticut. While the Rockingham County Board of Elections initially voted unanimously to remove him from the ballot, it was later overturned in a party-line vote. The two Republicans on the Rockingham board voted against reinstating him, while the three Democrats voted to allow him back onto the ballot.
The State Board unanimously opted to defer to the county board of elections’ decision.
Failing to fill out the disclosure form removes you from the ballot, but lying on it does not
This case has highlighted two major flaws with North Carolina’s Felony Disclosure forms, which all candidates must fill out to run for public office – with one glaring exception. The first and the most problematic of these two issues is that if a candidate lies on his Felony Disclosure report, he can remain on the ballot.
Though lying on a candidate’s Felony Disclosure report is a Class I felony in North Carolina, the statute does not state that a candidate is subject to removal from the ballot if charged with this offense. Under the law governing the Felony Disclosure form, a candidate can be removed only if he fails to fill out the file within 48 hours of notice from the county or state board of elections.
In theory, a candidate can be charged with a felony for knowingly lying on their disclosure report about prior felony convictions yet remain on the ballot till they are convicted.
This scenario could potentially happen with Gibson. When Gibson filed for office in 2022, he disclosed only his 1991 felony conviction for 3rd-degree burglary and failed to disclose his other felony convictions. Gibson’s 2024 Felony Disclosure report did not include any of his felony convictions. Gibson claimed he was not required to report these felonies, because they had been expunged from his record, but that claim is false. While Gibson’s felony conviction record is not online, his convictions have not been expunged by the State of Connecticut. I spoke with the New Haven assistant clerk of court Patricia Nielson, who confirmed that Gibson’s convictions were still on record and that the reason they are not available online is simply because of the age of the cases.
Gibson’s claim of expungement of his record may be due to a misunderstanding of Connecticut’s new Clean Slate law. The law states that those convicted of a class D, E, or lower felony would have their convictions expunged after ten years. While this law wouldn’t apply to Gibson’s 2001 2nd-degree larceny charge, which is a class C charge in Connecticut, it could apply to his other convictions should he apply for expungement. Anyone convicted of a felony before 2000 who wants their charges expunged would need to apply for expungement. The law was set to go into effect in 2023 but was delayed till this year.
Gibson’s failure fully to disclose his prior convictions violated G.S. § 163-106(e) for both his 2022 and 2024 filings. The statute makes an exception, however, for those who file Statements of Economic Interest. During the SBE’s final meeting (see the 19:30 mark) to discuss Gibson’s case, Assistant General Counsel Adam Steele pointed out that subsection (e) does not apply to Gibson’s circumstance. Steele’s comments were narrowly tailored toward the accuracy of candidates’ felony disclosures; nevertheless, a strict reading of the statute would imply that candidates who fill out a Statement of Economic Interest are not required to complete the Felony Disclosure form.
Statement of Economic Interest loophole
Candidates required to file Statements of Economic Interest carry a higher burden of disclosure when running for office. Not only are they required to disclose any felony convictions that have not been pardoned or expunged, but they are also required to disclose financial earnings and any potential relationship they or a family member has with organizations that have received or could receive money from the state. This higher burden for disclosure would seemingly give way to higher punishments — but that is not the case.
The Statements of Economic Interest grant more leeway for candidates and other filers for noncompliance and giving inaccurate information than does the Felony Disclosure form. Rather than the Felony Disclosure form’s 48-hour window to be completed after notice of noncompliance, candidates are able to fill out the Statement of Economic Interest within ten days of the registration deadline for the office.
Also, should a candidate fail to complete the Felony Disclosure form, he is removed from the ballot. Candidates who fail to complete a Statement of Economic Interest, however, are not removed from the ballot. Instead, they are notified to file their Statements of Economic Interest after 30 days of noncompliance. They have an additional 30 days from the time of the notice to file their paperwork or be fined $250. Only after 90 days from the filing deadline and 60 days after the notification of noncompliance can any disciplinary action occur under current state law. The disciplinary actions in the statute specifically concern “public servants,” not candidates for public office.
In addition to enjoying lower requirements on filing the respective paperwork, Statement of Economic Interest filers also have leeway depending on the whether a filer conceals or outright falsifies information in their reports. It is a class H felony to provide false information on one’s Statement of Economic Interest, but only a class 1 misdemeanor to conceal or knowingly fail to disclose information. This difference potentially allows candidates for public office to receive a lighter charge for failing to disclose prior felony convictions.
House District 65 has only two candidates, both Republicans, leaving the victor of the March primary as the candidate-elect.
Americans’ trust in elections has been on a downward trend over the last several years and is unlikely to improve following this year’s presidential election. Legislators should address shortcomings in the law for the 2026 election cycle during the 2024 short session rather than put it off till 2025.
First, legislators should remove the exception clause in the statute governing the Felony Disclosure form and require that candidates who knowingly fail to disclose their felony convictions be removed from the ballot. Additionally, lawmakers should add language to disclosure laws so that they apply not just to legislators and other elected officials, but also to candidates for those offices as well.