Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Know your rights post Florence on National Voter Registration Day

Today is National Voter Registration Day, and early voting for the November midterm elections in North Carolina is less than a month away.

Voters can make sure they are registered to vote and that their information is current here. Anyone who isn’t registered to vote or who needs to make changes to their registration has until Oct. 12 to do so and can find more information here.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) also recently released information about voter rights post Hurricane Florence, which devastated much of the eastern part of the state.

“In the wake of natural disasters, voters frequently get displaced from their homes,” a news release states. “That does not mean that these voters lose their right to vote and have their political voices heard. Survivors of Hurricane Florence who have been forced from their homes because of the storm and subsequent flooding have several options available to them to vote this November.”

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement is still assessing damage from the hurricane to early voting sites. The State Board and voting rights advocates have been working double-time to get out the vote in the wake of the disaster.

See SCSJ’s voting rights flyer below:

Know Your Voting Rights by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Report: NC early voting locations cut by almost 20 percent for uniform hours law

What’s more important when it comes to early voting — more hours at the polls or more polling locations for better geographic access?

ProPublica’s Electionland took a stab Monday at trying to answer that question — responses at the legislative level varied by party affiliation; responses from election officials was nearly uniform in their discontent over a new law’s requirement for uniform polling hours across the state.

Senate Bill 325 sets uniform voting hours for all early voting sites across the state. As explained in this NC Policy Watch article, a county board office, at a minimum, must be open during regular business hours for the 17-day early voting period, which will run this year from Oct. 17 to Nov. 2.

Any other one-stop early voting sites in a county must be agreed upon unanimously by the county board of elections and must operate every weekday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. If any one-stop early voting site is open on a Saturday or Sunday, then all sites in that county must be open for the same number of hours. In addition, if any one-stop early voting site is open, all county sites must be open on that day.

Republicans claimed that the uniform hours would make early voting easier and more accessible, but election officials say there is more to it than that.

Electionland expounds:

For many counties, the trade-off for more polling hours is fewer early voting locations. Take Gaston County, near Charlotte. In 2014, the county opened one main polling place at 8 a.m. and three additional ones at 10 a.m. According to Adam Ragan, the county’s nonpartisan director of elections, there are very few voters in the county eager to cast ballots early in the morning. The county, therefore, typically maximizes its resources by staggering voting hours across multiple locations.

“In elections administration, we have what we consider ‘non-usable hours,’” Ragan explained. “There are some locations where people won’t come at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. That’s why we’ve always opened our auxiliary sites at 10 a.m.”

The county originally planned to open five early voting locations, but with the new policy it can now only afford to operate three.

The organization’s analysis of polling locations shows that North Carolina’s 2018 midterm election will have nearly 20 percent fewer early voting locations than there were in 2014. Nearly half of North Carolina’s 100 counties are shutting down polling places, in part because of the new law, the article states.

Poorer rural counties, often strapped for resources to begin with, are having a particularly difficult time adjusting to the new requirement.

The law appears to have exacerbated the divide between urban and rural counties, putting a greater strain on poorer, less populous counties, which often have smaller budgets, fewer full-time employees and an older voting population that is less willing to volunteer for what could be a 12-hour poll worker shift.

Take Bladen County. When it approved its operating budget this year, election officials set aside funds for four early voting sites. Though sparsely populated, Bladen County is large — the state’s fourth biggest by area — and local election administrators wanted to provide ample access to voters across the region.

Their plan had precedent. In every statewide election over the past decade, Bladen voters could cast their ballots at one of four early voting locations spread out across the county. Now, with the strict hours requirement, Bladen County can only afford to staff and operate one early voting site.

“We’re a small county and the law has affected us pretty badly,” said Bobby Ludlum, the GOP chair of Bladen County’s Board of Elections.

You can read the full ProPublica report here.

Courts & the Law, News

Federal court delivers victory for NC farmworkers

A federal court blocked a North Carolina law Thursday that guts the ability of farmworkers to organize and make collective bargaining agreements with their employers from going into effect as a legal challenge proceeds.

The court found that the North Carolina Farm Act of 2017 likely violates farmworkers’ Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection, according to a news release from the ACLU of North Carolina.

The federal lawsuit was brought on behalf of the only farmworkers’ union in the state — the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC)– and two individual farmworkers. It was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the ACLU, the North Carolina Justice Center, and the Law Offices of Robert J. Willis. The N.C. Justice Center is the parent organization of NC Policy Watch.

“North Carolina’s law is clearly designed to make it harder, if not impossible, for the state’s only farmworkers union to advocate for sorely needed protections against exploitation and bad working conditions,” said Brian Hauss, a staff attorney at the ACLU. “We’re glad the court has blocked the legislature’s attempt to violate farmworkers’ constitutional and civil rights, and we’ll keep fighting for the ability of those workers to organize and advocate for better working conditions.”

More than 100,000 farmworkers provide labor to North Carolina farms, helping to generate more than $12 billion for the state economy, according to the ACLU. Ninety percent of the state’s farmworkers are Latinos and work seasonally, many under temporary visas.

The Farm Act bars farmworker unions from entering into agreements with employers to have union dues transferred from paychecks — even if the union members want it, and even if the employer agrees to the arrangement.

The Thursday court ruling is a victory for farmworkers.

“We’re happy that the federal court saw clearly that this racist law was an effort to stop farmworkers from having the resources to fund their own institution and fight for a more fair workplace,” said FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez.

Clermont Ripley, staff attorney with the NC Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project, said the judge’s decision to enjoin the discriminatory Farm Act means that FLOC can get back to work focusing on the needs of its members.

“This is more critical than ever right now as farmworkers throughout eastern North Carolina are struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Florence,” she added.

Mary Bauer,  deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, echoed those sentiments and said farmworkers and their right to organize and bargain for fair working conditions are guaranteed in the Constitution.

“Farmworkers provide essential labor to North Carolina’s economy, and they deserve equal protection under the law,” she said. “As the case moves forward, we will continue to fight to protect their right to organize for humane working conditions and fair compensation.”

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NC NAACP to facilitate absentee voting in hurricane-impacted counties; State Board still assessing impacts

The North Carolina NAACP announced Monday that it would facilitate providing absentee ballot applications to registered voters in Hurricane Florence-impacted counties.

“It is imperative that while our communities struggle to recover from the devastating flooding and other destruction from this storm, citizen’s right to vote should not be impaired,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President of the organization. “The NAACP has long advocated for the right to vote and we know from the experience of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 that flood-impacted areas had depressed voter turnout.”

The counties hit hardest by Hurricane Florence have some of the largest percentages of African-American and Latino populations in the state, according to a news release from the NAACP.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement was conducting preliminary assessments of storm damage Monday, reaching out to all 100 county board of elections directors for updates on conditions on the ground.

“As you probably know, flooding is expected to get worse in some areas before it gets better,” said spokesman Pat Gannon in an email.

State Board Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach also sent a letter Monday to all five political party directors to help address upcoming challenges as a result of the hurricane.

“Our thoughts are with so many affected by Hurricane Florence across our state,” the letter states. “Like you, we are closely monitoring the evolving situation as we work to guarantee the continuity of elections administration through this period of disruption. As party leaders, you are often first to hear of disruptions affecting particular communities. We want to partner with you to address challenges that may impact critical components of election administration and deadlines over the coming weeks.”

Most county boards of elections have been and will continue to send absentee ballots to military and overseas voters who have requested them, according to the State Board. Its office is stepping in to send out ballots for several counties that are unable to do so because their operations are affected by flooding, power and internet outages or inaccessible due to the storm.

“We are assessing emergency options, and our team is committed to assisting county boards and voters in the affected areas,” Strach said.

Lenoir County was one of the hardest hit areas by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and is again facing widespread flooding after Hurricane Florence. It is too early to tell how county voting will be affected from this weather event, but you can read more about how flooding affected early voting there in 2016 here.

The NAACP is planning to try and offset early voting issues by encouraging absentee voting. According to the State Board, any registered North Carolina voter can request an absentee ballot by mail, and no excuse is needed to vote by absentee.

“To request an absentee ballot, complete the North Carolina Absentee Ballot Request Form,” according to the State Board. “The Absentee Ballot Request Form may only be signed by the voter or a voter’s near relative or legal guardian. According to the law, a ‘near relative’ can be any of the following: spouse, sibling, parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, mother-in-law, father-in-law, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, stepparent, or stepchild of the voter. A completed Absentee Ballot Request Form may be scanned and emailed, faxed, or mailed to the county board of elections.”

Anyone not registered to vote at their current address may send in their updated voter registration form along with the absentee ballot application, but that must be done by Friday, October 12 — the last day to register by mail to vote in the November 6 election this year.

Spearman said the absentee ballot campaign is keeping with the organization’s commitment to civic engagement.

The State Board is also reminding voters that they can vote by mail (with no excuse needed); vote early in person from Oct. 17 through Nov. 3; vote on Election Day, November 6. The regular voter registration deadline is 5 p.m. October 12. Eligible individuals may also register during the early voting period.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Unplugged power supply to blame for missing special session audio from House chamber

It took Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble more than a month to mail NC Policy Watch one email from July accounting for missing House chamber audio from the special session in which lawmakers retroactively changed judicial filing rules.

“So, not cut wire,” the email from July 25 states. “A power supply was unplugged that is used for the recording PC and the assistive listening devices — that is how this works.”

The email is referring to a House audio chamber recording of debate from the July 24 special legislative session. NC Policy Watch inquired about the missing audio in early August while working on a story about Senate Bill 3, a measure that retroactively mandated judicial candidates be associated with their preferred political party for at least 90 days prior to filing for office.

Policy Watch was told by legislative staff during an early August phone call that there had been a “glitch” in the system and they may not be able to recover the audio recording. They claimed at the time to not know exactly what happened. The Senate chamber audio, on the other hand, was successfully recorded.

No further details at the time were offered so a public records request was sent Aug. 3 to Coble asking for “all emails, text messages and any and all other documentation or materials to, from and between all legislative staff, legislators and legislative assistants that refers to any audio recording or the a/v system that records audio from the House floor debate on July 24, 2018.”

Policy Watch received a package today from Coble via U.S. Mail with one responsive email on a thumb drive and a letter dated Sept. 12 noting that it cost taxpayers $105.15 to fulfill the request.

The single email dated July 25 — prior to Policy Watch’s phone call — includes an “internal write-up” about the missing audio.

“It appears that a test of the recording computer was done at approximately 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday,” it states. “I do not know if it was listened to. Audio testing of the FTR (For the Record) software had been done on Thursday, July 19, during cabling operations. The power supply must have been knocked [loose] or removed from the plug after this.”

The audio, had it been properly recorded, would have been of the floor debate over SB3. It is now marked “audio incomplete” on the legislative website and is the only date listed this year that wasn’t properly recorded.

Lawmakers appeared to target state Supreme Court candidate Chris Anglin with SB3 — he changed his Democratic voter registration to Republican on June 7 and is challenging Republican incumbent Justice Barbara Jackson and Democratic candidate Anita Earls. The bill, though, affected a total of four judicial candidates, including Anglin.

A court has since issued a preliminary injunction blocking the measure, which means each of the affected candidates will still appear on the ballot with the party they were registered with at the time of filing.

Read the full email from Coble’s response below.

House Audio 07 24 18 by NC Policy Watch on Scribd