Courts & the Law, News

Report: Election security advocates, NAACP head call for Board of Elections chair to resign

Will Doran of the News & Observer wrote this week about election security advocates and the head of the North Carolina NAACP asking for a new leader at the North Carolina Board of Elections, but that’s not likely to happen, according to the article.

The group sent a letter Monday to Gov. Roy Cooper asking him to demand the resignation of Board of Elections Chairman Damon Circosta, who the governor appointed earlier this summer after prior chairman Bob Cordle resigned over telling an inappropriate joke at a conference.

They say the elections board has not done enough to focus on cyber security in the face of foreign interference in elections, the newspaper article states. They also oppose the board’s recent decision to allow counties to use — instead of hand-marked paper ballots — a type of electronic voting machine, which they say runs on outdated software and could be more susceptible to hackers.

“We respectfully urge you to request the immediate resignation (of Circosta) from the State Board of Elections and to quickly appoint a replacement member committed to ensuring North Carolina’s elections are a model of security for the nation, providing that all votes are recorded and counted transparently, accessibly, auditably and securely for all voters,” the letter said.

Cooper, however, stands by Circosta and the elections board as a whole.

“The security of our elections is the number one priority of the State Board of Elections,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said. “This includes ballot and voting machine security, ensuring against voter intimidation and discrimination in all forms, freedom from long lines, and making sure that voting is as easy and hassle free as possible. The Governor believes the board is focused on these concerns.”

Circosta told Doran that his goal was to keep voting equipment secure. Board of Elections spokesman Pat Gannon responded to the newspaper by questioning some of the accuracy of the claims in the letter.

The saga stems from Circosta’s decision to allow counties to choose which voting machines to certify for the 2020 election. Election security advocates, who were part of the public process, criticized electronic machines because of the potential for hacking and urged the State Board to certify hand-marked ballot systems. (Disclosure: Circosta is the Executive Director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, a funder of NC Policy Watch.)

Doran’s story states that most counties in North Carolina give hand-marked paper ballots to most voters, which the activists who wrote the letter prefer. But some plan to continue using only electronic voting in 2020 — including Mecklenburg County, the state’s largest county.

Circosta said the board has done its due diligence and would not have certified any voting machines that didn’t pass security tests. However, he said he has nothing against activists raising their concerns.

“I always appreciate advocates bringing these issues to our attention,” Circosta said.

With all the rules about pre-election testing, security during elections, and then audits after elections, he said, “there is a remarkable amount of work that goes into making sure that when people go to the polls their choices are registered and secured.”

Read the full story here.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Federal judge denies legislators’ attempts to move partisan gerrymandering case from state court

A federal judge ruled against North Carolina lawmakers for a second time this year on their attempts to remove partisan gerrymandering lawsuits from a state court.

Judge Louise Wood Flanagan remanded Harper v. Lewis, a challenge to the 2016 congressional map in North Carolina, to Wake County Superior Court, where a three-judge panel is expected to take up preliminary injunction arguments Thursday.

Flanagan cites several reasons for her decision, among them, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that partisan gerrymandering claims are out of the reach of federal courts.

“Federal jurisdiction is doubtful, and remand is necessary, because this case is not justiciable in this court,” she wrote.

The legislative defendants had alleged in their attempt to have the case removed from state court that there was a “colorable conflict” between lawmakers’ federal duties under the equal rights act and the alleged state law duties. Flanagan didn’t agree.

“This court previously expressed doubt over the correctness of this standard, in Common Cause,” she wrote in the order. “Now, after Rucho, the court further doubts whether a partisan gerrymandering claim can be entertained in federal court on the basis of a mere asserted ‘colorable conflict’ between federal law and state law. Rather, the plain language of the statute requires that defendants remove to this court ‘for refusing to do any act on the ground that it would be inconsistent with’ equal protection laws.

“In any event, it remains ‘uncertain and speculative whether the ultimate relief sought in plaintiffs’ complaint in the form of new plans comporting with the North Carolina Consitution would conflict with federal law.'”

The legislative defendants also tried to remove Common Cause v. Rucho from state court, but that effort was unsuccessful. That case, a partisan gerrymandering challenge to the 2017 legislative maps, was successful for the plaintiffs with the same three-judge panel that is presiding over this newer case, Judges Alma Hinton, Paul Ridgeway and Joseph Crosswhite.

Lawmakers have since redrawn those maps in a remedial process, but the panel is still reviewing them to decide if they correct the constitutional errors made previously. If the maps don’t pass muster, the court could ask referee Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford Law Professor, to redraw them.

The three-judge panel is set to hear arguments in Harper v. Lewis at 10 a.m. at Campbell University School of Law. That hearing is open to the public. The plaintiffs in that case have asked the court to enjoin lawmakers from using the congressional map in the 2020 election because it unfairly advantages Republicans.

Interestingly, lawmakers moved a redistricting reform hearing set for Wednesday afternoon to 9 a.m. Thursday, which means it will likely coincide with the lawsuit hearing. The meeting is open to the public and audio will be streamed online.

The agenda for the House redistricting committee meeting states that members will take up three redistricting reform bills, House Bill 69, HB 140 and HB 648. Lawmakers have been in session for 10 months and this is the first hearing set for those redistricting bills.

Below is a description of each of the bills, per the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.

House Bill 69 — Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission

  • Not a constitutional amendment, final approval remains with General Assembly
  • 11-person commission made up of voters from a pool nominated by legislative leaders — 4 Democrats, 4 Republicans and 3 not affiliated with either major party. Commissioners shall represent the state’s racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity.
  • The commission will hold a total of 21 public hearings both before and after the drawing of the maps, create the maps in a transparent public process and encourage citizen participation.
  • Once the commission completes and approves a redistricting plan, the plan will be sent to the NC General Assembly, which will vote on the maps without altering them. If the NC General Assembly rejects the maps, they must explain why. The Commission will redraw maps and submit them again to the NC General Assembly.

House Bill 140 — The FAIR Act

  • Constitutional amendment—requires 60% support in each house to place it on the ballot. Then, a majority of voters must approve the amendment before it is added to the NC Constitution.
  • Maps will be drawn by legislative staff, with an advisory commission, and NC General Assembly will retain authority over passage of the maps. It does not establish an independent commission.
  • The advisory commission will answer questions from the legislative staff, authorize policies for the release of information related to the redistricting plans, and organize, conduct and summarize 3 public hearings.

House Bill 648 — NC FAIR State and Congressional Districts Act

  • Not a constitutional amendment, final approval remains with General Assembly
  • Creates Independent Redistricting Commission with 16 members—11 voting members and 5 non-voting alternates. 8 members chosen by legislative leadership in both houses, these 8 members chose the final 3.
  • Commission hires a special master to draw at least two sets of maps for the North Carolina General Assembly and US Congressional districts.
  • The Commission shall determine which of the plans drawn by the special master are to be submitted to the NC General Assembly. Members of the NC General Assembly are not precluded from amending the maps or drafting their own.

Read Flanagan’s full court order from Tuesday below.



Harper v. Lewis federal order remand (Text)

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Vox explores how Hofeller shifted power in new video about gerrymandering

The late GOP mapmaker Thomas Hofeller has become synonymous with partisan gerrymandering in the U.S., but it’s his work in North Carolina that really captured people’s attention.

Vox put together a video last week that explores how Hofeller shifted the balance of power by taking gerrymandering to the extreme, and it zeroes in on North Carolina.

“Perhaps his greatest work was in his late years,” states an article introducing the video. “In 2010, after Republicans took over several statehouses, Hofeller helped redraw several statehouse maps, including the maps in North Carolina. Gerrymandering has been around for centuries, but in that redistricting cycle, Hofeller tested the limits of exactly how much power one party can accrue — without actually having a majority of the electorate support them.

“When the Supreme Court struck down his maps for diluting the voting power of black people, Hofeller drew another round of maps that diluted the political power of Democrats.”

For years, there was speculation about Hofeller’s motives during redistricting in North Carolina, but it wasn’t until after his death that people began to see it concretely after his daughter turned over his digital files to plaintiffs in a partisan gerrymandering case. Some of those files have been made public, but the majority have been kept confidential.

A judge is expected to rule this week on the publicity of the entirety of the Hofeller files. In the meantime, check out the video above.

Courts & the Law, News

Local voting rights attorney featured in Teen Vogue series

Allison Riggs is a senior voting rights attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Anyone who has ever wanted a peek into Southern Coalition for Social Justice voting rights attorney Allison Riggs’ day-to-day has a chance now by reading Teen Vogue.

The magazine featured an hour-by-hour behind the scenes look at a day in the life of Riggs in its politics section as part of its series, The Hustle, which gives insight into how readers’ peers and idols get the job done.

“Allison Riggs isn’t intimidated by much,” the article states. “As the head of the voting rights program at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, she has argued cases in federal courthouses throughout the southern United States — and even before the Supreme Court. Riggs’ heavy workload requires her to criss-cross the country, fielding calls from reporters and listening to oral-argument recordings as she hops between hotels and airport waiting rooms. This hectic schedule can be draining and keeps her apart from her puppy, but she’s motivated by the fight to stop voter suppression and fix our ‘broken’ government. Here, Riggs shows us what a day as a voting rights attorney is really like.”

Her day starts at 4:30 a.m. — she notes she always gets up early the morning of an argument to review cases she might be asked about, refine her argument notes, and “practice pithy answers to expected questions.”

Riggs has been the face of many high-profile lawsuits in North Carolina, including redistricting and voter ID challenges. She’s also present at legislative meetings about topics that could end up in litigation — most recently, she attended all the remedial redistricting meetings related to Common Cause v. Lewis, even though she didn’t argue the case.

In the Teen Vogue piece, Riggs discusses her before and after routine for an argument Aug. 7 at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Houston, Texas. She jokes about her caffeine fix, talks about delayed flights and canine cuddles at the end of a long day.

“Canine cuddles at the end of a long day are the best!,” she wrote. “So is knowing that even though the hours are long and the travel is stressful, what I’m fighting for is critical. Our government is broken, and we are the ones with the power to fix it. But that requires that everyone be given a fair chance to participate in the political process, and far too many politicians just want to continue in their ways, unchallenged. The odds may be against me in this particular case, but the arc does bend, albeit slowly, toward justice.”

Read the full article here.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

ACLU of NC asks court to declare solitary confinement unconstitutional

North Carolina inmates in solitary confinement are kept in cells that are no bigger than a parking space for 22 to 24 hours a day with little to no human contact. If they were healthy before being confined to such extreme punishment, they often get sick, and if they were unhealthy, it exacerbates their situation.

The ACLU is arguing solitary confinement is a form of cruel and unusual punishment in a new lawsuit filed this week against Erik Hooks, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the agency itself. Rocky Dewalt, Robert Parham, Anthony McGee and Shawn Bonnett are named plaintiffs in the suit who have spent collectively more than 23 years in solitary confinement.

“Typical adverse effects [from solitary confinement] include depression, panic, paranoia, anxiety, self-mutilation, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, cardiovascular disease, hallucinations, extreme social withdrawal, and exacerbation or recurrence of preexisting mental illness,” the lawsuit states. “These effects often begin within just a few hours or days of placement in solitary, and do not necessarily end when the placement does. People who leave solitary often continue to suffer from severe social withdrawal, symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress, and increased risks of suicide and drug overdose.

“A growing chorus of medical professionals, courts, and public officials have acknowledged the potentially devastating effects of solitary confinement, the practice’s limited utility in promoting rehabilitation and public safety, and the need for change.”

The lawsuit states that DPS routinely subjects thousands of North Carolina inmates to prolonged or indefinite amounts of solitary confinement.

In addition to living in small spaces with minimal human interaction and no meaningful access to the outdoors, out-of-cell “recreation” for inmates in solitary confinement typically consists of no more than five hours a week in a slightly larger cell, according to the lawsuit. Those inmates eat their meals alone, just a few feet from where they urinate and defecate.

“Defendants do not reserve solitary confinement as a punishment for the most severe disciplinary infractions, or as an emergency measure for addressing safety threats,” the document states. “People who commit minor infractions, such as cursing at a guard, may spend months in isolation as a result. Defendants’ policies do not even require a conviction of any prison rule violation before placing someone in North Carolina’s ‘supermax’ unit.

“While some people in Defendants’ custody commit serious infractions, they often do so as a result of severe, untreated mental illness. Prolonged solitary confinement will only exacerbate their illness, stunting rehabilitation and making prison conditions all the more dangerous.”

The ACLU maintains that viable alternatives to solitary confinement exist, and they ask the court to declare restrictive housing policies and practices as unconstitutional. Read the full lawsuit below.



Aclu Pls Solitary Complaint 10 16 19 (Text)