North Carolina Voting Rights Trial Begins Monday

The case against a set of voting laws passed by the General Assembly in 2013 begins Monday in federal court.

The U.S. Department of Justice and civil rights groups, including the North Carolina NAACP, took issue with a series of voting laws the General Assembly passed in 2013. The Voter Information Verification Act, or House Bill 589, ended same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting. It also reduced the number of early voting days and requires voters to present a photo ID beginning in 2016.

Jasmyn Richardson is an attorney for the Advancement Project, an organization representing the NAACP in the case.

“We have a few big claims, to simplify them,” Richardson says. “The biggest one is under The Voting Rights Act.”

The Voting Rights Act is the landmark federal legislation of 1965 that outlawed racial discrimination in voting. Richardson says the plaintiffs will argue House Bill 589 conflicts with Section 2 of that Act.

“And under that section, we’re basically arguing that House Bill 589 as it is enacted places an unfair burden on African Americans and Latinos.”

Those racial minorities, Richardson says, use the voting provisions eliminated by House Bill 589 at higher rates than whites.

“Our argument essentially is that by taking that away, you’re taking away what a group of Americans, particularly African Americans and Latino Americans, had been accustomed to using,” Richardson explains.

Richardson says the plaintiffs will make several constitutional claims as well, arguing the bill applies differently to different people and that it places a burden on the general right to vote.

The state argues the laws are not discriminatory, but meant to increase confidence in the integrity of North Carolina elections.

Judge Thomas Schroeder will preside in the case. He serves on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Winston-Salem. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

NC’s New Primary Date Will Cost Orange County More In 2016

This time next year, you might be headed to the polls.

One of the lesser-known provisions of the state’s sweeping 2013 election reform bill will come into play in 2016, when North Carolina’s presidential primary will follow hot on the heels of South Carolina.

“We would be following the primary for South Carolina whenever their presidential preference primary is,” Orange County Board of Elections Director Tracy Reams explains. “So we could be looking at holding a presidential preference primary in February, and then holding the remaining primary contests in May.”

Reams says she’s heard the rationale for moving the date up from May is to give North Carolina more clout in the nomination process.

“From what I understand, they were talking about how in North Carolina, when we hold our primary so late in May, that some people feel like it has already been decided who that presidential candidate is going to be, before North Carolinians get a chance to weigh in on that vote.”

But the move to leapfrog ahead of other states could come at a cost if it’s not OK’d by the national Republican and Democratic parties. The number of North Carolina delegates could be limited, or excluded from the national conventions altogether.

On the local level, the dual primary system will end up costing Orange County twice as much.

“The cost is going to be doubled,” says Reams. “For the presidential preference primary we would have to open up all 44 voting sites; we would have to conduct the early voting period the same way we would in May; we would have advertising costs, ballot printing costs, ballot programming and layout costs. It would, in essence, be double the cost of what we spend in May.”

And it may contribute to voter fatigue in a year when contests ranging from governor to county commissioner will be on the ballot.

“During a presidential primary, we always have a really good turnout,” says Reams. “I’m not sure separating the presidential primary from the other primaries- I’m not exactly sure how that’s going to bring out the people if we’re going to hold an election in February.”

Adding to the uncertainty, mid-February has seen snow and ice this year and last. Reams says it’s possible wintery weather could be a problem next year.

“That would have been a very bad situation, if we have Election Day and we have the weather like we had this week.”

Reams is planning to submit a budget request to Orange County Commissioners this spring asking for more funding to meet the new requirements.

As for the exact timing and process for the presidential primary, Reams says all she can do is wait for state officials to figure it out.

“What we’re waiting for is just more directions from the State Board [of Elections], you know, the logistics and the timing and how we’re going to bring all this together,” says Reams.

Click here to read more on how House Bill 589 will impact local voters in 2016.

OC Elections Board Struggles With Campus Early Voting

CHAPEL HILL- Though the Orange County Board of Elections is struggling to find a site for on-campus early voting, members are adamant they’re not trying to limit student turnout.

Board Chair Kathy Knight says the three members are focused the logistics of the state’s new voting laws, not partisan politics.

“We are going out of our way to try to keep something close to campus,” says Knight. “We have other sites we could go to, but they’re too far off campus. We have put out to the university, to the students, that we are trying to come up with a place that is accessible to students and the public. So where that came up, that we don’t want it for the students, I don’t know.”

Ram’s Head Dining Hall was last year’s on-campus early-voting site, but Knight says it is not an option moving forward.

“We have problems with Ram’s Head,”says Knight. “We have to have so many hours and they all have to be open the same hours. You have ball games on Saturdays, which means we wouldn’t be able to be open because we wouldn’t have the parking. So there’s more than one problem with Ram’s Head.”

The Board is trying to comply with the provisions of House Bill 598 passed by the Republican-led General Assembly last summer.

Under the new law, the length of the early voting period is shortened from 17 to nine days, but sites are required to remain open the same total number of hours.  All sites in the county must have identical schedules and provide the option of curbside voting.

With Ram’s Head out of the running, the Board is looking at the North Carolina Hillel Center as a possible site. Past early-voting locations such as Morehead Planetarium and University Square are no longer available due to recent or ongoing renovations.

The Board’s struggle to find a spot for on-campus early voting has drawn scrutiny from those who say Republicans elsewhere are actively working to limit student turnout.

Matt Hughes is the Chair of the Orange County Democratic Party. He says he’s seen a statewide push to disenfranchise young voters.

“It’s undeniable that youth voters tend to vote Democratic and I think that’s at play,” says Hughes. “I think there are those- not our Board of Elections staff- who would like to see the youth vote curtailed and I think there is a coordinated effort across the state to do just that. It’s evident whether you’re talking about Watauga County, Forsyth County or down east in Elizabeth City.”

Last August the Watauga Board of Elections shortened early voting to just four days and removed a polling place on Appalachian State campus.

But Hughes says he’s not sure that’s the aim of Orange County board members.

“I don’t believe that our local Board of Elections is seeking to curtail the youth vote, but we do need to make sure that we’re offering good customer service to our voters in making elections more accessible,” says Hughes.

A recent change in the make-up of the Orange County elections board is fanning the flames of suspicion among some local Democrats, as the three-member board is now Republican-dominated for the first time in twenty years.

That’s because local boards of elections are appointed by the state Board of Elections, and those appointments are made by the Governor. Currently all 100 county elections boards are comprised of one Democrat and two Republicans.

Jaime Cox is the lone Democrat on the Orange County board. He also rejects the notion that local board members are trying to limit student access to the ballot.

“We have a strong history of bipartisan cooperation in the county and I see that continuing this year,” says Cox.

But he acknowledges that reaching out to student voters while accommodating the new rules is proving difficult.

“It is a bit like piecing a puzzle together, trying to find a site that is close in proximity, but that also allows us to provide curbside voting as well as parking for members of the community that are not affiliated with campus or who don’t get around by walking or bicycle or bus,” says Cox.

Both Knight and Cox say they need help from the public to identify potential new sites for early voting on or near UNC’s campus, and with a mid-March deadline to submit those sites to the state Board of Elections for approval, time is running out.

The Orange County Board of Elections will meet February 4 to narrow down its list of early voting sites for the May primary.

NC Election Process Likely To See Big Changes

Pictured: Moral Monday Protest; photo by Rachel Nash

RALEIGH – The Senate backed sweeping changes in the election process Wednesday evening that will likely alter the way we vote in North Carolina. The bill proposes significant changes to the state’s current election laws and also requires photo I.D.’s at the polls.

House Bill 589  was revamped by Senate Republicans Tuesday to include provisions that go beyond a voter I.D. requirement. The new version of the bill shortens the early voting period in general elections from 17 to 10 days, prohibits counties from extending early voting hours on the Saturday before Election Day to accommodate crowds, eliminates same-day voter registration during early voting, and eliminate straight-ticket voting, among other provisions.

One form of identification that would not be accepted is student I.D.’s and some believe this is targeting the collegiate vote. Protesters, including UNC students, have been rallying  and even arrested at the General Assembly this week, outraged because of this bill.

UNC Student Body President Christy Lambden says he is concerned about how these possible changes will affect his peers’ access to the polls.

“I’m disappointed to see the introduction of the Voter I.D. Bill, especially if a student I.D. is not counting a valid form of voter I.D,” Lambden says.

Reverend William Barber of the state NAACP says in a statement: “These policies will be the most race-based, regressive and unconstitutional attacks on voting rights of the citizens of North Carolina that we have seen since the implementation of Jim Crow laws…”

Backers of the bill say that photo identification will cut down on voting fraud, whereas opponents of the bill say it is a strike against the more liberal groups, like student voters.

“Anything that is putting a constraint on voting and making it harder for students to vote, as I think this will, I think means that student voice is not going to be heard and that is ultimately troubling for me as a student representative,” Lambden says.

The election law changes normally would have been subject to authorization under the Voting Rights Act, but the Supreme Court’s recent decision exempted North Carolina from federal review until a new process is created by Congress.

“I think the state legislature needs to focus on maximizing student participation in the election process and I think to do that, they need to make sure that students can vote as easily as possible,” Lamden says.

A final vote of concurrence is expected in the Senate on Thursday. If passed, it will then go back to the House for a final vote and finally head to the desk of Governor Pat McCrory.

Local NAACP Member Says Protest Arrest Was Worth It

CHAPEL HILL – Bishop Larry Reid, pastor at the Cathedral of Hope Church in Carrboro, was arrested Monday during the NAACP’s protests of Republican legislation in Raleigh.

He says it was worth going to jail for what he believes in.

“It was about making a stance, saying enough is enough. They have created more discontent in this community and this state than I’ve seen in my 50-plus years of living.” Reid said.

Reid, along side NAACP N.C. Chapter president Rev. William Barber, and other activists participated in a “pray in”— or demonstrations through prayer and song. The protest took place inside the state Legislative Building.

They were arrested on charges of trespassing, creating a public disturbance, displaying unauthorized signage, and failure to disperse on command. Reid was released from jail 4:00 a.m. Tuesday morning. The group protested Republican action on health care, unemployment benefits, education, and voting rights.

Bill 589, entitled the Voter Information Verification Act, passed in the House last week. It requires voters to show photo identification at the polls. Members of the NAACP view the bill as a form of poll tax.

“It doesn’t make any sense that they would put something in place that is so restrictive and call it a voter ID. There’s no question in my mind that there are other motives that they have in mind,” Reid said.

President of the Chapel-Hill Carrboro NAACP Chapter, Minister Robert Campbell, says he fully supports the actions of his colleagues.

“Changes only come when there is a civil out-cry. Changes come when things are done in a peaceful manner, speaking out against these inappropriate processes that are taking place in the people’s house—the legislative building,” Campbell said. “If that’s what it takes for the conscious of men to be stirred up, then hey, it’s well worth it.”

Campbell believes this wave of recent legislation is regressive and is for the self-benefit of the Republican Party.

“People of faith are standing together, saying: ‘We’re not taking one step back. You might arrest 20, but 20 more will come,’” Campbell said.

Reid says Bill 589 not only discriminates against African Americans—he says it will affect other groups, like teenage voters, senior citizens, and college students. He has a daughter in college

“The reason we didn’t protest being arrested was because we wanted the people of North Carolina to see what we are standing for,” Reid said.

Another piece of legislation might affect the way his daughter votes. Senate Bill 667, Equalize Voter Rights, prevents parents from claiming their kids as dependents for tax exemptions if their kids are registered to vote at any address other than the parents’ home address.

Reid says the protests will continue.