Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Today: Absentee by-mail voting kicks off March primary election

ATLANTA, GA – NOVEMBER 06: Voters cast their ballots at a polling station set up at Grady High School for the mid-term elections on November 6, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. Georgia has a tight race to elect the state’s next Governor. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

The State Board of Elections will begin mailing out absentee by-mail ballots today to voters who request them for the March primary election.

Any North Carolina voter is eligible to vote absentee by mail. Primary Election Day is March 3 and the absentee by-mail ballots must be requested from the voter’s county board of elections by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25. Voters will select the political party nominees to appear on the Nov. 3 General Election ballot.

“By-mail absentee voting officially launches the 2020 primary election,” said State Board Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell in a news release. “Any registered voter in North Carolina may request a mail-in absentee ballot for the primary.”

To vote absentee, voters must complete a 2020 state absentee ballot request form. Voters who submit a valid request will receive a ballot from their county board of elections. The materials will include detailed instructions for how to complete and return the ballot, according to the State Board.

There are changes to the absentee voting process this year, including that an absentee request form is only valid if returned to the county board by the voter, the voter’s near relative, legal guardian or Multipartisan Assistance Team (MAT); forms cannot be emailed or faxed; and, if a voter needs help completing the request form due to blindness, disability or inability to read or write and a relative or legal guardian is not available, they can get help from another person, who must list their name and address on the form.

There are five primary ballots available to voters representing the following political parties: Constitution, Democratic, Green, Libertarian and Republican. Voters affiliated with one of those political parties must vote with that primary ballot — unaffiliated voters can choose a Republican, Democratic or Libertarian primary ballot, or a nonpartisan one if available.

One-stop, in-person early voting for the primary begins Thursday, Feb. 13 and runs through Saturday, Feb. 29. A photo-ID is not required to vote in the primary election.

Visit the State Board’s absentee voting page online for more information.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Flower to the people: NC law enforcement, prosecutors say not so fast

Industrial hemp in a greenhouse (Photo: NC Industrial Hemp Association)

North Carolina law enforcement officials and prosecutors are getting blunt about their position on smokable hemp: it looks like weed, it smells like weed and officers can’t tell it apart from weed, so ban it.

“Since smokable hemp and marijuana are indistinguishable by appearance and odor, without enactment of legislation clearly banning smokable hemp, we will have de facto legalization of marijuana,” states a joint press release from North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, the NC Conference of District Attorneys, the NC Association of Chiefs of Police and the NC State Bureau of Investigation.

The organizations are urging lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 315, the North Carolina Farm Act of 2019, as soon as possible so law enforcement, prosecutors, licensed farmers and the public “clearly know what hemp substances are lawful and unlawful.” The bill was passed by the Senate in last year’s long session but stalled in the House, with most of the division focused on the smokable hemp section.

SB 315 defines smokable hemp as “harvested raw or dried hemp plant material, including hemp buds or hemp flowers, hemp cigars, and hemp cigarettes.” Hemp and marijuana both come from the cannabis plant, but hemp contains much smaller amounts of THC, the illegal psychoactive compound that causes the high from marijuana. Federal law currently defines industrial hemp as cannabis plants containing less than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight (marijuana can contain more than 30 percent).

CBD oil and similar extracts, plus rope, textiles, food products — all derived from hemp — would remain legal under SB 315.

Law enforcement already pleaded with lawmakers during last year’s session to prohibit smokable hemp. Their arguments now have not changed.

“There is no practical way for law enforcement officers to distinguish the flowering variety of hemp (i.e. smokable hemp) from marijuana because it is the same plant,” states the Tuesday news release. “The plant looks and smells the same (unburned or burned), whether it is hemp or marijuana. The only difference is the level of THC contained in the plant.”

The release points out that there is currently no validated field test which distinguishes the difference between smokable hemp and marijuana. Police narcotics detection K9s can’t tell the difference either, because they are trained to detect THC, which presents in both plants.

The North Carolina State Crime Laboratory also currently does not have the appropriate equipment or personnel necessary to determine the concentration of THC which is necessary to distinguish smokable hemp from marijuana, according to the release.

Farmers said last year during committee meetings that the concerns over the smokable plant were overblown. If they can’t grow smokable products, it would put their budding industry at an economic disadvantage compared with other states that do allow it. The North Carolina Hemp Retailers Association and the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

The controversy over smokable hemp isn’t just unfolding in North Carolina. Louisiana and Indiana banned smokable hemp sales last year, and Texas banned smokable hemp manufacturing. Kentucky banned sales of hemp cigarettes, cigars, whole hemp buds and ground flowers in 2018, according to an article on the Pew Charitable Trusts website.

Nationally, people spend more money on hemp CBD oil than on smokable flower, the Pew article states. The biggest CBD product category — tinctures — hit about $1 billion in sales in 2019, said Virginia Lee, CBD research manager at the Brightfield Group, a cannabis market research firm based in Chicago.

By contrast, an estimated $70.6 million of hemp CBD pre-roll and raw flower were sold in the United States in 2019, Lee said. But, she said, those sales are growing.

North Carolina lawmakers return Tuesday. It’s not clear yet whether House members will take SB 315 up again — if passed, the smokable hemp ban would be effective beginning June 1.

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

This week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. A lost decade: Ten ways in which conservative policies have grievously harmed North Carolina (Commentary)


At the dawn of the new decade, not everything is worse in North Carolina than it was ten years ago when conservative ideologues assumed power. For some pockets of the population, the past decade has brought a measure of growth, expanded rights and enhanced prosperity.

For the state as a whole, however, this optimistic assessment clearly does not apply. Thanks to the political Right’s abandonment of the state’s historic commitment to progress via intentional public solutions, North Carolina has wasted a decade that it could have spent making important headway in a raft of important areas at a crucial historical juncture. Here are ten key missed opportunities and wrong turns: [Read more…]

2. DEQ, Duke Energy, community groups strike deal on largest coal ash cleanup in US

Settlement requires utility to excavate 80 million tons of ash from remaining impoundments

In an historic agreement, Duke Energy will remove coal ash from unlined pits at its six plants – Allen, Belews Creek, Cliffside/Rogers, Marshall, Mayo and Roxboro – which will finally cut off this source of groundwater and surface water contamination near those communities.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality, Duke Energy and the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented community groups in litigation against the utility, all announced the details of the settlement Thursday. [Read more…]

3. As voter ID falls again, Republicans are still confusing predator with prey (Commentary)

Say one thing for Congressman Dan Bishop and his nihilistic pals in the Republican Party: They see the farce in New Year’s resolutions.

Resolutions come in shiny and new, be-tuxed and coiffed, and scuttle out the club’s emergency exit in the mid-morning light, face a mess. So why bother?

Perhaps Bishop thought to himself, ‘Why bother?’ before issuing his Dec. 27 Tweet. Why bother with the truth now? Why bother with a genuine position now? Why bother? [Read more…]

4. The New Year should be pivotal for public education in North Carolina

In 2020, the conversation about public education in North Carolina will undoubtedly be shaped by the WestEd report, which punctuated the end of 2019 with a big exclamation point.

WestEd, an independent nonprofit research group, found that North Carolina must spend nearly $7 billion over the next eight years of meet its state constitutional obligation to provide its children with a “sound, basic education.”

The group was directed by Superior Court Judge David Lee to research the state’s public education system and bring back recommendations to ensure all students receive a quality education. [Read more…]

5. From climate change to coal ash: Five environmental stories to follow in the New Year

CLIMATE CHANGE

Remember 350 parts per million? In 2008, author Bill McKibben christened his environmental group 350.org because 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide was thought to be the limit of the “safe” amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Within five years, we blew past 350 and careened to 400. In May 2019, Planet Earth, the Only Known Viable Place to Live in the Universe, hit 415.26 ppm, a historic high.

What does that number mean? The people of eastern North Carolina can tell you: Inundated farms, wastewater treatment plants spewing sewage into the streets. Sunny day flooding in Wilmington. More frequent devastating hurricanes: Dorian, Florence, Matthew. [Read more….]

6. Durham immigrant workers paid back more than $13,000 in stolen wages


For the third time this year a group of largely undocumented Latinx immigrant workers in the Triangle has successfully pressured an employer to repay stolen wages through a combination of protests, calls from supporters and legal tactics.

Just before Christmas, 20 immigrant former employees of the Durham construction cleanup company HomeHitters Inc received a settlement of $13,352 after several months after launching protests of the company’s owner. The workers had completed their work in February and March of 2019.

7. Weekly Radio Interviews and commentaries:

Click here to listen to our latest commentaries and podcasts with Rob Schofield

8. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Federal judge: Lawmakers had at least some ‘discriminatory intent’ passing voter ID law

A federal judge who temporarily halted the requirement of a photo ID to vote in North Carolina said lawmakers were at least partially motivated by racial discrimination when they implemented it, according to an injunction released Tuesday.

U.S. District Court Judge Loretta C. Biggs for the Middle District of North Carolina wrote in the 60-page injunction that she looked to the state’s past for context about whether the voter ID constitutional amendment and subsequent implantation law, Senate Bill 824, would disenfranchise minority voters.

“The preliminary evidence demonstrates a clear likelihood that Plaintiffs will establish that discrimination was behind the law: S.B. 824 was enacted against a backdrop of recurring state-sanctioned racial discrimination and voter suppression efforts — both in the far and more recent past — and the state’s polarized electorate presents the opportunity to exploit race for partisan gain,” the document states. “While the sequence of events surrounding S.B. 824’s enactment were procedurally unobjectionable, the bill’s temporal proximity to H.B. 589, the fact that many of the same legislators shepherded and voted for both laws, and the potential that, were it not for unconstitutionally gerrymandered maps, the legislature would not have had the supermajorities necessary to place a constitutional amendment before voters or override the governor’s veto, indicate that something was amiss.”

The North Carolina NAACP sued Gov. Roy Cooper and the State Board of Elections as soon as lawmakers passed SB 824. The injunction is pending that litigation. It’s not yet known if North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein will appeal Biggs’ (a Barack Obama appointee) injunction — his spokesperson, Laura Brewer, said Tuesday that his office was reviewing the order. Republican lawmakers have urged Stein’s office to appeal the injunction.

In addition to stopping voter ID efforts until further notice by the court, Biggs ruled that the defendants should halt any mailings informing voters they need a photo ID to vote and work with the local media, county boards of election and voter-education groups to inform voters about the injunction.

Read the full order below.



Voter ID Injunction (Text)

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Durham immigrant workers paid back more than $13,000 in stolen wages

Durham immigrant workers hold their checks repaying them more than $13,000 in stolen wages. (Photo courtesy of Siembra NC)

For the third time this year a group of largely undocumented Latinx immigrant workers in the Triangle has successfully pressured an employer to repay stolen wages through a combination of protests, calls from supporters and legal tactics.

Just before Christmas, 20 immigrant former employees of the Durham construction cleanup company HomeHitters Inc received a settlement of $13,352 after several months after launching protests of the company’s owner. The workers had completed their work in February and March of 2019.

“There were many times when I thought this is just not going to happen, but we remained strong and encouraged each other to keep going,” said Nelly Ysleno, who first contacted Siembra NC after receiving a pamphlet about wage theft outside of Compare Foods in Durham. “And now we [have] all this money that we had earned through hard work but didn’t think we were ever going to see, and right before the holidays. It feels really great.”

The workers are all members of Siembra NC, an organization of Latinx people “defending our rights & building power ‘with papers and without papers’ with member leadership teams in Alamance, Durham, Forsyth, Guilford, Orange and Randolph counties,” according to its website.

The group says a dialogue with Demetrius Liverman, CEO of Homehitters, about the stolen wages began in October, nearly six months after workers were ignored and allegedly threatened by the company. A dozen former employees, along with members of the Durham Workers’ Assembly, had also marched onto a construction site where the company held a contract to hand deliver their demand letter after emails and certified mail were ignored, according to Siembra.

It took several weeks of negotiations and some protesting before the workers received 95 percent of their stolen wages as part of a settlement.

The workers’ victory came two months after a group of former Mebane Hampton Inn employees concluded stolen wage negotiations and a group of Greensboro immigrant cleaners successfully won repayment of their stolen wages in July. Immigrant workers supported by Siembra have received more than $45,000 this year as a result of community pressure campaigns, according to the organization.

All of the workers involved were subject to threats by management, some involving their legal status, the organization states in a news release. They were supported in negotiating the final settlement by Durham pro bono attorney Elizabeth Simpson.

Wage theft can occur in many different ways, but is ultimately when a worker does not receive their legally or contractually promised wages. Examples include employers not paying overtime, not paying for all the hours an employee works, withholding a last paycheck or not paying minimum wage.

Siembra states that their public pressure campaigns became necessary in part because the state Department of Labor under the leadership of Cherie Berry is notoriously unwilling to aggressively investigate claims of wage theft — and when it does, it’s only for W2 employees, not for verbal contracts such as those at issue in these recent cases). A 2017 report estimates that $316 million in wages are stolen each year from North Carolina employees.