Did North Carolina’s GOP Trick Democrats into Attending a 9/11 Memorial, Then Pass an Unpopular Healthcare Bill?
On September 11 2019, a Facebook user shared the following post (archived here), which claimed in a three-part commentary that North Carolina Republicans used the anniversary of 9/11 to “trick” Democrats into missing a last-minute vote:
What appeared to be a Tumblr screenshot read:
every member of the north carolina GOP needs to be barred from holding public office this isnt a joke every single one of them is a lunatic
not only did they trick the nc dems to go to a 9/11 memorial while they stayed behind and passed their budget proposal unopposed, the few democrats that stayed behind had their mics cut off and some were even prevented from voting
the entire reason they pulled this stunt was so they could deny 500,000 north carolinians health care coverage like do you understand how evil this is even by politician standards
The post quickly accrued shares and engagement, but no news stories accompanied the screenshot one day after the purported events described in the screenshot occurred. A Tumblr blog existed for the user whose name appeared in the screenshot (“pissvortex”), and the post in question was published by that user on September 11 2019 (archived here). The following day, the post had over 37,000 “notes” or comments and a “hot post” icon appeared next to it.
A September 12 2019 post by the same person (archived here) expounded on their original point, branding the Democrats in question “complicit” and naive for purportedly succumbing to the tactic described:
something i need to be clear about with regards to my NC GOP post:
the NC GOP is as crooked and evil as it is because the NC dems refuse to do anything to stop them. they think that just because NC is a southern state they have to be dragged around on a leash by republicans and make only weak compromises to republican legislating.
the reason the republicans got away with what they did today is because they told the dems “hey, don’t come to the vote today, we promise we won’t overturn the veto” and the absolute idiots actually believed them, even after everything they’ve shown they’re willing to do in the past.
democratic representatives allow themselves to be walked all over every single day. the republicans break every rule and play as dirty as possible to deny as many people as possible a dignified living and the only thing they receive in response is “how dare you sir!” and “just you wait until the voters hear about this!”
the dems refuse to exert any of their appointed power, and they insist on collaborating with republicans out of some perceived notions of “being the better people” and “reaching across the isle”. meanwhile the state is being gerrymandered to hell, and everyone is getting their rights stripped away from them. they’re completely unwilling to fight for their constituents – at this point, they’re complicit in this.
Interest in the claim was clearly high; the controversy attracted national attention.
Elements of the original viral post and its follow up are verifiable, and some elements of it are opinion. Among the facts we can examine: Whether a vote occurred on that date in North Carolina, whether the vote was held during scheduled 9/11 remembrances, whether the vote (if held) was seen as a sucker-punch to the state’s lawmakers with the Democratic Party, whether or not Democrats’ votes were counted, whether Democrats were denied the floor, and whether elements of the vote in question had to do with healthcare coverage for North Carolinians. Elements not checkable included claims that every Republican in North Carolina was a lunatic, whether they all ought to be barred from public office, and whether state Democrats were “completely unwilling to fight for their constituents” or “complicit.”
As it turns out, coverage of a 9/11 voting controversy in 2019 in North Carolina was fairly widely covered — by NBC News, the Washington Post, Slate, CBS News, Newsweek, GQ, The American Prospect, and local news organization The Raleigh News & Observer. In the first of a pair of a September 11 2019 articles, the News & Observer reported an unscheduled vote to override the governor’s veto of a state budget occurred:
In an early-morning move that shocked and angered Democrats in the chamber, the N.C. House of Representatives voted to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the state budget. Just over half of the 120 members were present to vote.
Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican, made the motion to reconsider the state budget, and chaos in the chamber quickly ensued. Democrats in the chamber vehemently objected to the bill being brought up, saying they were told there would be no votes during the 8:30 a.m. session and that the session was just a formality so work could begin.
House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican, denied that such an announcement was made, and even asked the House Clerk to back him up. That prompted an outburst from Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover … Moore ignored the objections of the Democrats who were in the room and instead mowed through the vote with only 64 members voting. The vote was 55-9. Later, multiple Democratic House members who were there but who weren’t able to vote in time had their votes recorded as “no.”
Per that local, initial report, “just over half” of the chamber was present to vote, Democrats raised an initial objection claiming they were told no voting would occur, and multiple present Democrats’ votes were recorded as “no” because they did not vote in time. In a subsequent portion of the article, a Democratic lawmaker maintained that Democrats’ microphones had also been switched off. Smaller details of the broader vote were not articulated, such as whether the legislation had to do with healthcare coverage for state residents.
Members of North Carolina’s Democratic Party quoted in the article said the vote happened “while the state was honoring first responders,” and Republicans had lain “in wait” for an opportunity to vote with an understaffed chamber. Republican Rep. David Lewis acknowledged telling a reporter the night prior that he “he thought there would be no votes,” denying he said that to anyone else.
Gov. Roy Cooper condemned the vote during a midday press conference, and House Speaker Tim Moore maintained that he sought an “opportunity” to override Moore’s veto:
Moore responded to Cooper and Democrats at a 1 p.m. press conference, where he denied that any promises were made about a “no vote” session. The budget was on [September 11 2019]’s calendar and included no disclaimer that there wouldn’t be a vote.
“I’ve made it clear. I’ve said it from right here, on the floor, everywhere: If I see an opportunity to override this budget, this veto, I was gonna take that vote,” Moore said.
“If they didn’t want it to pass, all they have to do is show up for work,” he said.
Democrats consulted for the article said that the dispute hinged largely on what was said between legislators of both parties, and not what was calendared. So long as 61 lawmakers were present, voting can occur:
The House can conduct business so long as it has a quorum — at least 61 lawmakers — present. Both chambers of the General Assembly need three-fifths majority of the members present and voting to override a veto from the governor. With 67 lawmakers present, only 40 votes were needed for the override.
In a second article published later in the day on September 11 2019, the outlet reported that a contentious element of the divide between North Carolina Republicans and Democrats involved state health insurance coverage:
The Democratic governor and other Democrats want it. Republican leaders, particularly in the Senate, said repeatedly they do not. Cooper said he wanted Medicaid expansion as part of budget negotiations, and it was the main reason for his veto.
In that article, Democrats maintained they had been informed verbally that no votes would take place, some claiming by Lewis himself, who disputed the claim and denied making any such statements — except for one made to a WRAL reporter. WTVD provided additional comments made by Moore about the circumstances of the disputed voting procedure, and reported that nine of the legislature’s 55 Democrats were present for the vote:
In a response to Cooper’s remarks, House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters policy was followed.
“I’ve made it clear, I’ve said right here from where I am on the floor, everywhere, if I see an opportunity to override this budget, this veto, I was going to take that vote,” Moore said. “Under our rules, we took a vote on the override. It was properly noticed, procedures properly followed and we took the vote. And I think it’s a great day for North Carolina because we finally are a step closer to having a budget.”
Republicans had wanted to override Cooper’s budget veto for months but did not have the three-fourths of the vote required to override the veto. Without the votes, Republicans kept the veto override on the calendar but never brought it to the floor–until [September 11 2019].
Democrats charge Republicans with deliberately lying (by saying they would not call a vote on the morning of Sept. 11) in order to push through the vote with just 53 percent of North Carolina representatives present–and with the vast majority of those present being Republicans plotting to override the budget veto.
As for claims the Democrats were largely attending September 11th commemorations, the paper investigated it further and determined “only two” lawmakers were attending such events at the time of the vote:
Some headlines suggested that Democrats were at events commemorating the 9/11 attacks — the vote was taken at roughly the same time as the national moment of silence. But The News & Observer has confirmed only two Democrats attended 9/11 events.
The paper also explained the next steps regarding the contentious vote:
The state budget still can’t pass without the Senate also overriding Cooper’s veto. However the Republican majority only needs one Democrat to vote with all of them to obtain the necessary override. The override had not been added to the Senate calendar as of late [afternoon on September 11 2019].
In a scathing editorial published that day, the same paper’s editorial board decried the vote as a “shameless theft of democracy”:
The verdict is now plain. North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders — not actually leaders, but connivers — are beyond shame.
In a stunning display of contempt for democracy, House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, called a surprise vote to overturn Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the state budget just after a session opened at 8:30 a.m. [on September 11 2019]. Democratic lawmakers and the media had been told by Republican leaders that there would be no vote in the morning.
Most Democrats were absent. Enough Republicans, aware of the secret plan, were there. When Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican, made the motion to reconsider the state budget, the handful of Democrats on hand objected strenuously.
And the legislation at issue isn’t a bill of limited scope. It is the state budget. It is how North Carolina defines itself by the priorities it sets in spending. And it’s being held up by a dispute over a major issue that involves billions of federal dollars and ultimately affects everyone in the state, Medicaid expansion.
The editorial made no mention of the timing of the vote, focusing instead on what its authors deemed political subterfuge. In the Washington Post‘s coverage of the controversy, the title and first line reiterated the claim that absent Democrats were attending events for 911, a claim later disputed by the same local newspaper condemning the events of the early-morning vote. A clarification was later added:
Clarification: An earlier version of this article overly generalized the reason for Democrats’ absence from the General Assembly session. This version has been updated.
CBS, Slate, American Prospect, Newsweek, and GQ made mention of the purported timing; NBC reported Cooper “was attending a 9/11 memorial when the chaos unfolded.” Slate mentioned Gov. Cooper and “some” lawmakers were at ceremonies, while early coverage indicated the absences were for other reasons, too:
According to social media accounts held by several Democratic members of the state house, some of those members were attending services remembering the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks at the time of the vote, and Butler said one or two were at doctors’ appointments.
A widely-shared Tumblr post about the North Carolina 9/11 vote controversy combined opinion with verifiable fact, and much seemed to be based on the growing controversy as it was initially reported. First reports based in part on Gov. Cooper’s press conference (in which his 9/11 memorial attendance was mentioned) appeared to promote the idea all absent lawmakers were at similar events; the vote occurred during a national moment of silence. Detailed local reporting indicated that Democratic lawmakers objected not to the date or time of the vote, but what they claim were verbal promises no vote would take place during the early-morning session.
Lewis, a Republican lawmaker, admitted telling the media no vote would occur, but denied relaying that information to Democrats. Moore, the House Speaker, said that if an “opportunity to override this budget, this veto” presented itself, he would “take it.” That opportunity seems to have appeared during an early-morning session where only nine of 55 Democrats were present. Objecting Democrats reported their microphones being switched off. Finally, the post’s assertion that Republicans “pulled this stunt” so that they could “deny 500,000 North Carolinians health care coverage” was broadly accurate, as the primary point of dispute between Republicans unable to secure votes and Democrats voting “no” was the issue of the state’s Medicaid expansion.
While we have given this story a truth rating of Mixture, that is because of the somewhat conflicting reporting on how many people were originally at 9/11 ceremonies. Both Democrats and Republicans both confirmed that only Democrats were led to believe no voting was taking place, allowing one party to hold an unexpected vote while the other was unaware, with the nine Democrats present strenuously objecting.