How Latest Decision On Early Voting Plans Fits Into NC Election Lawsuits

Oct 14, 2016

UPDATE: The group of young voters appealed the federal district court decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Oct. 19, that court also denied the young voters' request to adjust early voting plans in five counties. 

In the fight over early voting in North Carolina, one of the things that stands out in a recent decision is who sat on the sidelines.

The U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina NAACP and the state chapter of the League of Women Voters did not join a request to adjust early voting plans in five counties. Only one group of plaintiffs from the N.C. voting lawsuits made that request: young voters known as the Duke Intervenors. 

The Duke Intervenors have been sort of a sidebar in the lawsuits over North Carolina's sweeping election overhaul. They've focused on a novel argument: the overhaul discriminates against young voters in violation of the 26th Amendment. Judges in the case have either rejected or not addressed that claim.

In their latest request, the Duke plaintiffs shifted their focus to the impact on African-Americans. That's what the voting lawsuits have really been all about. It's what led the other plaintiffs to sue North Carolina. It's also why the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down major parts of the overhaul, ruling that Republican lawmakers had targeted African-Americans "with almost surgical precision."

After the ruling, county boards of election had to come up with new plans. Early voting had to stretch for 17 days, but counties had a lot of leeway to set hours and locations. Most county boards settled on new plans with bipartisan support. But a third of counties couldn't reach an agreement. Republican board members in some of those counties wanted to drastically cut hours and locations compared to the last presidential election.  

At that point, the North Carolina NAACP and League of Women Voters were still part of the fight. They and the Duke plaintiffs sent the state Board of Elections a letter threatening additional legal action if certain bare-bones plans were approved. In a marathon meeting on Sept. 8, the three Republicans and two Democrats on the state board settled on a variety of compromises that mostly increased hours and sites compared to 2012. 

Attorneys for the NAACP and the League of Women Voters weren't entirely satisfied. They're still worried about Mecklenburg County, for example. Early voting hours here will increase 1 percent compared to four years ago, even though the Charlotte area is one of the fastest growing in the country. But the state board did enough to prevent the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and the U.S. Justice Department from further legal action.

However, the Duke plaintiffs decided to keep the fight going. They asked for a mix of more hours, sites or Sunday voting in Forsyth, Guilford, Nash, New Hanover and Mecklenburg counties. Their request went to the federal judge who's presided over the voting lawsuits at the district court level in Winston-Salem, Thomas Schroeder.

Schroeder rejected their request but didn't exactly endorse the early voting plans. He wrote that the request had "fundamental timing and procedural problems." They include how close the request was to the start of early voting and how the issue in two counties is really with local election boards, which are not technically part of the long-running lawsuits. He says attorneys would ordinarily need to file "a separate action" for that kind of claim.

"In summary, even assuming that Duke Intervenors’ claims raise serious questions," Schroeder wrote, "the lateness of their challenge vis-à-vis the start of early voting, as well as the attenuated relationship their claims have to the terms of this court’s injunction, makes their present motion for emergency relief problematic."

Early voting begins across North Carolina on Thursday, Oct. 20. You can find more information here about the hours and sites counties will offer.