One of the more controversial bills of this year’s voter suppression package at the North Carolina General Assembly is Senate Bill 667 – a proposal that would purport to prevent parents from claiming their children as tax deductions if they register to vote in the communities where they attend college.
Now, it appears, we know where the lead sponsor, Senator Bill Cook, of got at least some of the inspiration for the bill — from local officials in one of the counties he represents (Pasquotank). As it turns out, suppressing the votes of college students there (at least the African-Amerian ones) is a popular sport for some conservative politicians.
Attorney Clare Barnett of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice has the story:
Black student voters challenged and removed from voter rolls
Fifty-six students at the historically black university, Elizabeth City State University, were removed from the voter registration rolls by the Pasquotank County Board of Elections after challenges by the local Republican Party Chair. During an 8 hour hearing, the Pasquotank GOP Chair, Richard Gilbert, challenged the registration of 60 voters, 59 of whom were registered to vote using a ECSU campus address. The only non-ECSU voter challenge was for a deceased relative of Mr. Gilbert’s associate. According to the Board of Elections Director, Mr. Gilbert requested a list of students from ECSU living on campus as of October 2012. The local Board uses a similar list to verify the addresses of students who register to vote on campus. Any students who were registered to vote at the campus address but did not appear on the ECSU list were challenged. At a March 13, 2013 probable cause hearing, the Board found probable cause for all the challenges based on the voters not appearing on the ECSU list.
At the hearing on April 18, 2013, only 3 of the 59 challenged students appeared before the Board. Clare Barnett, a Staff Attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, represented all three of those students. Two students were allowed to stay on the rolls and one student voluntarily cancelled her registration. The two voters who successfully fought the challenge are Resident Advisors who live on-campus but were not listed on the student rolls because they are considered university employees. We do not know how many of the challenged voters may have been similarly left off the ECSU list because they are Resident Advisors or university employees. The ESCU lists were the main evidence used against the voters.
Mr. Gilbert supported his challenges to the student voters by presenting evidence that 1) The voter was not on the October ECSU list and 2) in some cases, the notices of hearing had been returned undeliverable. At the hearing, the Board also had a list of students living on campus as of April 2013. The Board struck all voters who did not come to the hearing and did not appear on the October 2012 or April 2013 lists, even if mail sent to their university address was not returned. The Board also struck students who appeared on the April 2013 but had their notices returned undeliverable. The Board rejected the dissenting Board member’s argument that many of the notices were sent to the University’s physical address, without any mailbox number, so it may simply have failed to reach the student currently residing there, or if the mailing included a mailbox number, the student may have changed mailboxes. Additionally, in one case, they struck a voter who had been mistakenly identified as not being on the October 2012 list, but was in fact on both residence lists. The Board cited as evidence supporting his challenge that mail sent to his mailing address in Raleigh was not returned, and he failed to appear at the hearing to defend where he was domiciled.
Mr. Gilbert repeatedly misstated the law by arguing that there is a legally rebuttable presumption that a student is not domiciled in her college town when she is already registered to vote there. The Board also took students’ failure to appear as “evidence of conduct” that they do not intend to be domiciled where they are registered to vote.
Mr. Gilbert has been challenging ECSU students’ right to register and vote since at least 2008. The Board of Elections Director and County Attorney both confirmed that Mr. Gilbert has never brought residency challenges against students who live on the campus of Mid-Atlantic Christian University, a predominantly white college also located in Elizabeth City.
ECSU was founded on March 3, 1891 when House Bill 383 of the North Carolina General Assembly established a normal school for the specific purpose of “teaching and training teachers of the colored race to teach in the common schools of North Carolina.” The bill was sponsored by Hugh Cale, an African American representative from Pasquotank County.