Election laws in the ‘new’ North Carolina
New controversial voting laws passed by the N.C. General Assembly last year were supposed to take effect in 2016, but the timeline will ultimately come down to lawsuits challenging their constitutionality.
Supporters of the legislature’s efforts contend that the measures are needed to ensure a more fair and efficient election process. Critics claim that the laws make it more difficult to cast a vote and disenfranchise minorities, the poor, the elderly and students.
Several provisions of the new law are currently the subjects of legal challenges. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has filed a lawsuit challenging cutbacks in early voting days, the elimination of same-day registration, the prohibition on certain provisional ballots and the photo-identification requirement.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice have filed a suit targeting the provisions of the law that reduce early voting days, prohibit out-of-precinct voting and end same-day registration.
“We sued about three hours after Gov. McCrory signed this bill,” Chris Brooks, legal director with the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union, told attendees of a League of Women Voters luncheon in Franklin recently. “It’s undoubtable that the legislation made it much more difficult to vote in our state.”
Legislators in North Carolina passed the state’s new election law shortly after being freed from decades-old federal oversight intended to ensure fair elections. Parts of the state, like the rest of the South, were subject to special provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, given their history of racial discrimination.
Until recently, the state couldn’t change any election laws without federal approval. But last year the U.S. Supreme Court lifted those shackles by a 5 to 4 vote, and North Carolina along with other states quickly moved to change voting laws.
The Justice Department lawsuit, however, seeks to reinstate such a period of federal oversight.
“We should be very, very skeptical of measures that make expanding the franchise more difficult,” Brooks said. “And, yes, as a Southerner I think we should be even more skeptical of measures making it more difficult to vote down here.”
Brooks had earlier talked of old-South voter suppression, of poll taxes and literacy tests, connecting the measures to the more recent legislation. He had talked about how African-Americans comprise 34 percent of the 300,000 people whose personal identification does not presently meet the legislative I.D. requirement.
He had talked about delivering a similar address to the Federalist Society at the Cardinal Club in Raleigh.
“It was one of the scariest experiences of my life,” Brooks said of speaking to the conservative audience, noting that there were no blacks at the Cardinal Club, and that the lack of diversity was perhaps clouding proponents’ perspective.
“If you just close your eyes to the way other people live in this state, maybe this makes sense,” he told the Franklin audience.
Supporters of the new laws would disagree. Susan Myrick, elections policy analyst with conservative think-tank the Civitas Institute, is among those who aren’t bothered by the new laws.
“I understand that the other side really hates the idea of reform and wants to call everybody names,” Myrick said.
The Civitas analyst described I.D. requirements as “common sense-acle” and said that changes to early voting were not “disenfranchising the voter, it’s giving the voter a different opportunity.”
Myrick argued that the new legislation is needed to shore up security — “North Carolina’s view of security at the ballot box has been the honor system all these years” — and that the state is different than it was when previous voting laws were written and polling places were places of familiarity — “so, people knew you, your teachers knew you, your Sunday school teachers were poll workers, whatever.”
“I can go into my polling place today and won’t know a soul. That is the new North Carolina,” said Myrick. “We’re different than we used to be, people don’t know you anymore.”
Brooks and Myrick deftly illustrate the opposing positions. They live on different sides of a chasm.
Take the issue of voter fraud, a problem portions of the new legislation addresses.
“I’ve got to say this right off the top,” Brooks said. “Voter fraud is not a problem.”
The ACLU legal director quoted former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and GOP campaign strategist Steve Schmidt in decrying the “Republican mythology” of voter fraud.
“The risk-reward makes no sense,” Brooks said, arguing that there was little incentive to attempt voter fraud.
Myrick said that, while voter fraud may not be often documented, the problem is one that merits attention.
“It happens every election,” the Civitas analyst said. “There’s very little voter fraud that has been proven in North Carolina, but there are things that happen that don’t get looked into.”
Likewise for changes to the state’s early voting process.
“No one was asking for that,” Brooks said, citing excessively long waits for voters at Florida polling places after that state altered its traditional early-voting process prior to the 2012 elections. “It makes it harder for everyone to vote. There was not public support for it.”
Conversely, Myrick appreciates the fact that county election boards can opt out of staying open the entire early voting period if it’s determined so many hours are not needed. She feels voters have ample time in which to vote, either absentee or in person.
“It’s not disenfranchising the voter,” she said. “It’s giving the voter a different opportunity.”
There are varying viewpoints on a number of aspects of the new legislation.
“I believe that they’re wrong, they believe that I’m wrong,” Myrick said.
The ACLU-Civitas divide mirrors the gulf between state legislators who passed HB 589 last year. The bill was passed down party lines.
Political challengers to sitting state legislators who voted in favor are quick to use the law as ammunition.
“I think we need to reverse everything that was done,” said Ron Robinson, a Democrat who’s vying for the state Senate seat held by Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. “I would have voted against them.”
Jane Hipps, another Democrat challenging Davis, agrees.
“We certainly need to restore confidence in our voting process,” Hipps noted. “We do that by ensuring that more, not less, of our citizens have the opportunity to participate in the process and are not deprived of this fundamental right by restrictive legislation.”
State Rep. Joe Sam Queen. D-Waynesville, voted against HB 589. He has three Republican challengers during this election year. At least one of them flinches a bit at the thought of North Carolina’s new election law.
“My vote probably would have been in favor of the bill,” said Aaron Littlefield, “but there were some details I would have liked to see worked out.”
Littlefield is a 22-year-old political science student at Western Carolina University. He used same-day registration in 2012 in order to cast his vote for Mitt Romney.
“Honestly, a lot of Republicans from Western Carolina University used it,” Littlefield said.
The candidate said he agrees with some provisions contained within the new law but ventured that passing the bill might cost some legislators their seats.
“I think Republicans will lose some seats,” Littlefield said. “I think there will be some losses, I think that will reflect some of the outcry.”
Key election law changestake effect in 2016
• Voters will not be required to show a photo I.D. this year but will be informed of such a requirement going into effect in 2016.
• No more same-day registration
• Reduction in the number of early voting days
• No out-of-precinct voting
• Provisional ballots may not be cast outside of a voter’s assigned precinct