Federal judiciary nominee Thomas Farr, a Raleigh lawyer, says in a letter this week to Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) that he met with a “ballot security team” before the 1990 election, when he was an attorney for Senator Jesse Helms’s reelection campaign, but strongly denies he knew the content of postcards to voters that resulted from the meeting.
The letter from Farr, who has not responded to several requests from the INDY for comment, comes at what could be a crucial time for Farr’s approval as a federal judge in Eastern North Carolina, as the U.S. Congress appears ready to leave for the holidays before the full Senate can vote on it. Booker, an increasingly high-profile Democratic leader, has called for Farr to reappear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to clear up questions about his record.
“Ballot security,” promoted primarily by the Republican Party since the 1980s, can mean basic protections against fraud, or may refer to a variety of practices, including voter intimidation and “voter caging”—challenging citizens at polling places if pieces of mail sent to their registered addresses come back undelivered.
The 1990 postcard campaign has emerged as an issue in the Senate consideration of Farr, nominated in July by President Donald Trump. In response to written questions from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Farr said he had not participated in any “meetings in which the postcards were discussed before they were sent” just before the November election.
“When I first saw the language on the card after it had been mailed and was advised as to whom it had been mailed, I was appalled,” Farr says in his letter to Booker. “I immediately recommended that the Helms committee cancel their 1990 ballot security program which they did.”
The INDY reported November 15 that Gerald Hebert, a former Department of Justice attorney of twenty-one years’ tenure, has said since at least 2009 that Farr took part in planning the postcard campaign before complaints came into the department’s civil rights division in the days before the November 1990 election. A number of liberal and civil rights groups have called for Farr to submit to more questions.
Hebert responded Thursday to Farr’s new statement in an email sent to the the INDY and to Huffington Post, which published it first.
“He claimed to Feinstein he had no involvement,” Hebert’s statement said. “He now concedes he met with the ballot security team in mid October. That team was discussing ways to suppress the vote. That team later sent out the cards, but I never said Farr knew they were doing it. He may have, but he denies it.”
A 1992 federal consent decree said a Helms campaign employee sent postcards to more than 100,000 voters, most of them African American, in a ballot security effort designed to intimidate and discourage black voters in the U.S. Senate race between Helms and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt.
“When you enter the voting enclosure, you will be asked to state your name, residence and period of residence in that precinct. You must have lived in that precinct for at least the previous 30 days or you will not be allowed to vote,” the postcard read in part, adding that giving false information to election officials was a federal crime.
However, according to a 1992 consent decree, people who had moved more than thirty days before a primary could have voted after taking steps prescribed by state law.
Farr’s responses to questions from Booker about the period are linked to an online story in the National Review, a self-identified conservative publication.
In his letter, Farr responds to a question from Booker about a meeting on October 16 or 17, 1990, “where the ballot security program was discussed,” according to a 1992 federal complaint. Booker also asked whether Farr was the attorney who had been involved in past security programs on behalf of Helms, as also stated in the complaint.
“Are you the attorney referred to in paragraph fifteen of the complaint?” Booker asked in written questions. Farr dodged the specific query.
“I do not know, but several weeks before the election, I participated in a short meeting with persons who wanted to be hired to do a ballot security program for the Helms committee in 1990,” Farr says in his letter to Booker, dated Tuesday. “During that meeting, I told them there was no reason to do a card mailing in 1990 because North Carolina law had been changed and returned cards could not be used to challenge voters.
“There was no discussion about the the contents of any hypothetical card that might be mailed or the persons who might be mailed a hypothetical card. I told them they might attempt to use returned cards in a recount. However, at the time of this meeting I was doubtful of the utility of any card mailing, even in a recount, because of the change in North Carolina law.”
In answer to another question, Farr says he “managed a ballot security program” for the Helms campaign in 1984. “There were no complaints about the legality of the 1984 mailings, which asked voters to support Sen. Helms,” he says.
Another former Helms aide, Raleigh political consultant Carter Wrenn, says in a December 14 letter to North Carolina U.S. Senator Thom Tillis that Farr didn’t know the content of the postcards until voters started complaining to federal civil rights officials.