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

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, Legislature, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. The dirty half dozen: What you need to know about all six proposed constitutional amendments

The 2018 midterm elections are upon us and North Carolina voters will soon pass judgment on, among many other things, an unprecedented raft of six constitutional amendments.

The proposals include:

  • a proposal to permanently cap the state income tax rate,
  • a proposal to remake the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement so as to alter its composition and how its members are selected,
  • a proposal to dramatically alter and limit the Governor’s authority when it comes to filling vacancies that occur on the state courts,
  • a proposal to require some undetermined form of photo identification for in-person voting,
  • a proposal to establish a state constitutional “right” to hunt and fish, and
  • a proposal to enact a multi-faceted “victims’ rights” amendment known as “Marsy’s Law.”

There are many compelling reasons to oppose all six – starting with the absurd and outrageous lack of process that accompanied their approval by the General Assembly during the final harried days of the 2018 legislative session, the hurried rewrite of two amendments in late August, and the deceitful and dishonest way the proposals will be summarized and presented on the ballot.

Still, even if one were to set aside all of the profound problems of process and procedure, there are numerous important substantive deficiencies in each amendment that are more than adequate to justify a “no” vote. Here is a brief list: [Read more...]

2. Old and in the way: Hurricane Florence could barrel over landfills, waste lagoons, hazardous waste sites and more toxics

Thousands of animal waste lagoons, hazardous waste sites and other repositories of toxic material lie in and near the projected path of Hurricane Florence, increasing the risk of breaches or leaks of dangerous chemicals into the environment. (This is one important reason you should avoid wading through or touching flood waters.)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has a new mapping and data feature, which shows the locations of these sites, both in map form and spreadsheet. All of the maps below are from the DEQ site and can be clicked on to enlarge them. We’ve linked to each map; once you get to that DEQ page, click on the “data” tab to view the addresses and facility names in spreadsheet form.

The first map shows all of the animal feeding operations for permitted swine, cattle and poultry farms that use wet litter. (Dry litter poultry farms are “deemed permitted” and are largely unregulated.) With more than a foot of rain forecast, there is a higher risk of lagoon breaches, which can send millions of gallons of animal waste to rivers, wetlands and nearby property. [Read more…]

Bonus read:

Read more

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

State Board of Elections, county boards take precautions ahead of Hurricane Florence

Hurricane Florence is expected to make landfall in North Carolina less than two months before midterm elections and officials are taking precautions ahead of time.

State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement Director Kim Strach sent out a memo Tuesday encouraging county boards of elections to prepare for potential flooding and not to take any chances with voting materials and equipment.

“Many of you were impacted by Hurricane Matthew back in 2016 with severe flooding that limited access to your office or voting sites,” the memo states. “The rainfall amounts anticipated with this storm could be in excess of 15 to 20 inches in some areas. This could result in flooding in places that normally do not flood. For those counties on the coast, the effects of the storm could begin as early as Wednesday so all preparations need to be made as soon as possible.”

Preparations include making sure all voting equipment, electronic equipment, files and other essential items are protected from the storm by moving them to higher ground or securing them in some other secure way.

“It is important for us all to remember that our emergency plans must also maintain the highest security safeguards,” Strach states in the memo.

The memo also addresses a Sept. 22 deadline for absentee ballots to be completed and how everyone will continue to work to complete the ballots. Read the full memo below:

Numbered Memo 2018-11 by NC Policy Watch on Scribd