In NC, Fight Over Voting Rights Shifts From Courts To Board Of Elections

Sep 7, 2016

About a month ago, a federal appeals court struck down major parts of the North Carolina's 2013 election overhaul, ruling that Republicans passed them with discriminatory intent. Thursday morning, the state Board of Elections will consider new plans that technically follow that ruling, but in some cases, still cut voting options African-Americans disproportionately use.

The fight over North Carolina's election overhaul is the kind of legal debate that can drive strangers to fill a city street together.

Marchers packed two to three blocks in Winston-Salem last year on the trial's opening day.

It focused on five changes Republican lawmakers made. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder highlighted one in particular when he announced the U.S. Justice Department was suing

"It is especially troubling that the law would significantly narrow the early voting window that enabled hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, including a disproportionately large number of minority voters, to cast ballots," Holder said.

North Carolina cut its early voting period from 17 days to 10. When the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down that and other changes in late July, the judges noted that African-Americans used early voting at far higher rates than whites.

Allison Riggs is an attorney in the case representing the League of Women Voters.

"The state did its best to restrict voting opportunities and the 4th Circuit shot that down," she says. "Now all that's left is the counties to give it their best shot."

Here's how the fight has shifted. Under the GOP changes, early voting was shorter in terms of days, but it had to be at least the same total hours as the previous comparable election. (Presidential to presidential, midterm to midterm, etc.) 

The ruling switched North Carolina back to its old law. It's a week longer in terms of days but doesn't have that hours requirement.

Most counties came up with new early voting plans that have bipartisan support. But Riggs says in about a third of counties, "Those range from outrageously bad to sort of bad to this is problematic and doesn't make good sense."

In Mecklenburg County, Republicans on the election board cut early voting hours about 9 percent compared to 2012. Republicans in some rural, heavily African-American counties want to cut hours and polling sites roughly 50 to 75 percent. Board members in three of those counties - Lenoir, Northampton and Bertie - declined our interview requests.

In letters to the state, they say the reductions make sense because of costs, their small populations, and the threat of voter fraud. 

The president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, Corine Mack, doesn't buy it.

"We understand very clearly the intentionality around voter suppression," she says. "It feels like Jim Crow. I know people use the term 'new Jim Crow.' But when we look at what's happening in this country, it feels as if there are still some people who have not got it. They have not got the revelation that we are all human beings."

Mack says she can't separate North Carolina's history of discrimination from what's happening now.

The chair of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party, Claire Mahoney, says she recognizes that history leads some African-Americans to view this as the latest attempt to suppress their vote.

"I mean I can understand it, but it's not," she says. "That's the problem. We can discuss these things without basically looking at every single person who has a different view and saying that they're evil and saying that they're racist."

Mahoney says there are legitimate reasons to reduce early voting. (About 13 states don't even offer it.) Her main arguments are that it reduces the time candidates can campaign, and that it's often not staffed as well to prevent fraud.

"Republicans are looking at maintaining and assuring the integrity of the election process," she says.

The evidence in the North Carolina case has shown it is tougher to verify registrations when people sign up during early voting. But although the risk of fraud is real, the judges have ruled there is little to no evidence of it actually happening. 

Politics are clearly at play here too. After all, Democrats disproportionately use early voting as well. The executive director of the NC GOP emailed county boards of election and told them to offer as little early voting as possible.

But the state Board of Elections has been clear: early voting should be used to help prevent long lines on Election Day. Josh Lawson is the board's general counsel.

"Given that 56 percent or around 56 percent is our expected early voting turnout for the state, we want to make sure that voting option to which many folks have become accustomed is a robust one throughout the state," he says.

The state board will have the final say on the plans. It aims to settle this fight at its meeting Thursday.