Commentary, Defending Democracy

Voting expert: What you need to know about the fall election (and how you can help)

Image: Adobe Stock

Confused about the rules for voting in North Carolina in 2020? Join the club! During the 20 years I’ve been helping citizens vote, I have never experienced this much fear and confusion about the basic rules for voting and election safety and integrity.

With the 2020 election three months away, new rules for voting in North Carolina, anxieties over COVID-19, and foreign interference disrupting the election, voters are rightly concerned about making their ballot count.

However, by educating yourself and others, as well as getting involved with voter registration drives and and staffing our polling places, we can ensure that our elections will be both secure and accessible for all eligible North Carolina voters.

There are four requirements to register and vote in North Carolina:

  • be a U.S. citizen;
  • be 16 years old to pre-register and be 18 years old by Election Day;
  • live at your residence for at least 30 days before Election Day, which is Nov. 3, 2020;
  • not be currently serving a felony sentence or still being on probation or parole for a felony.

And here are some key dates:

  • Election Day is Nov. 3
  • Absentee ballot request forms for the election are due Oct. 27, but we recommend registered voters request their absentee ballot as soon as possible. Request forms and steps for submission are available here.
  • You must be registered by Oct. 9 if you plan to vote either in person or by absentee ballot. Otherwise, you can go to an early voting site and register in person and vote in person.
  • Early Voting is from Oct. 15-31, 2020.

Want to do more to preserve and protect democracy?

Empower yourself and others by attending a virtual #Vote2020 Training provided by You Can Vote. Learn up-to-date voting rules and common misconceptions. Remember, Photo ID is not required to vote in 2020. We’ll share our best practices for educating and registering voters and what to bring if you wish to register and vote during the Early Voting period.

Become a Voting Rights Champion. Voters must be registered and have the most up-to-date voting rules to make their vote count. However, COVID-19 halted traditional in-person education and registration activities. In a year when civic organizations should be breaking records in the number of voter registrations, new registrations across North Carolina have plummeted.

You Can Vote’s new Voting Rights Champions program is designed to help you and your organization safely provide verified, bilingual, easy-to-read information to help voters cast their ballot successfully in 2020. You Can Vote will provide free training, materials and support for nonpartisan organizations.

Become a poll worker.  North Carolina will face a critical shortage of poll workers since the average age of a North Carolina poll worker is 60 and older. Since COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting older individuals, many are choosing not to return. We need younger, healthier individuals to step up and join the North Carolina Board of Election’s  Democracy Heroes program and help work the election. Democracy Heroes will be provided PPE for protection.

We must work together to protect our democracy and the integrity of our elections, beginning with ensuring all voters understand the rules and requirements of voting and can exercise their constitutional right to vote.

Kate Fellman is the founder and director of You Can Vote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization that educates, registers and empowers citizens to cast their vote. Based in North Carolina, this volunteer and community-driven group provides effective volunteer training and trusted nonpartisan election information to hundreds of partner organizations and agencies across the state.

COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News

Emergency order issued by State Board of Elections for fall election; watchdog group says more action needed

The State Board of elections issued a detailed, eight page emergency order today to deal with administering the 2020 election during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Click here to read the order.

Travis Fain of WRAL.com reported this summary:

The order requires at least one early voting location per 20,000 registered voters. That may mean a dramatic uptick in voting locations open in the weeks before the Nov. 3 election, though county boards of election can apply for waivers if they can serve voters with fewer locations without causing long lines, the order states.

The order requires election officials to wear face coverings, and it says counties must make masks available to voters who don’t bring their own. It does not require voters to wear masks.

The order also calls for frequent cleaning, backup plans if voting locations must close and social distancing, including ‘appropriate markings and providing appropriate barriers, including barriers between elections officials and voters at check-in.’

…The order also requires county boards of election to open early voting sites for at least 10 hours on the weekends of October 17-18 and October 24-25. The order allows for earlier open times and later closing times than in normal years, saying sites can open before 8 a.m. and close after 7:30 p.m.

A county’s early voting sites would generally have to have uniform hours, though, keeping to a legislative edict the General Assembly passed into law in recent years.”

The government watchdog group Democracy North Carolina, which has championed strong action to assure access to the ballot this fall, was unsatisfied with the order and issued the following statement:

“The order comes nearly two months after Democracy North Carolina and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the State Board of Elections demanding North Carolina take the necessary steps to guarantee a fair, safe election in November, given the likelihood that the state and the country will still be experiencing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Democracy North Carolina’s Advocacy Director Alissa Ellis responded to the order, saying the ‘measures fall far short of what is necessary’ to protect voters this fall.

‘Today’s emergency action by the State Board of Elections to expand Early Voting options, in addition to other safeguards, acknowledges what we’ve known for some time: to keep in-person voting safe amid the uncertain COVID-19 crisis, we’ll need to increase access to North Carolina’s Early Voting options and, in doing so, help avoid long lines and allow for safer social distancing at the polls,’ said Ellis. ‘However, these measures fall far short of what is necessary, and we encourage the State Board and Legislature to take further efforts to make voting safe and accessible to all voters during this pandemic, including expanding voter registration opportunities, easing assistance restrictions for absentee ballots, allowing county boards more flexibility in the hours they offer voters for early voting, and guaranteeing PPE and ballot drop boxes for voters. With voting only months away, now the immediate work must turn to helping North Carolina’s counties facilitate these important changes and educating voters about these and other options to vote more safely this fall.'”

Look for additional coverage of this developing story from Policy Watch in the coming days.

Courts & the Law, COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News

WATCH: Chief Justice Beasley delivers virtual State of the Judiciary address

N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley delivered the 2020 State of the Judiciary address Friday online.

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley virtually delivered the 2020 State of the Judiciary address today during the North Carolina Bar Association’s Annual Meeting.

The meeting was held online to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Beasley’s address focused on the judicial branch’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the modernization of the courts through the eCourts initiative and a commitment to access to justice, fairness and impartiality.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges that the modern judiciary and our courts have never before faced, and calls for racial justice have gripped the nation’s attention,” Beasley said. “But challenging times also present opportunities. COVID-19 has required us to think creatively about improving the administration of justice in ways that even a year ago seemed impossible. The demonstrations happening in North Carolina and across the nation have given us the opportunity to confront disparities in our justice system and ensure that the people of this state have trust and confidence that courts are a place where every case is decided based on principles of law and justice free from bias.

“And so, while this is truly an unprecedented and stressful time for our entire Judicial Branch and for the Bar, it is also an immensely hopeful time.”

Beasley is the North Carolina Supreme Court’s first Black female Chief Justice. She was appointed to the helm by Gov. Roy Cooper over a year ago after former Chief Justice Mark Martin resigned. Watch her full address below.

COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News

Advocates, UNC legal clinic partner to offer eviction hotline for Spanish-speaking tenants

Immigrant advocates and the Civil Legal Assistance Clinic at the UNC School of Law announced this week a new eviction defense hotline for Spanish-speaking tenants.

Evictions hearings that had been put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic resumed earlier this week after the expiration of a statewide moratorium. The recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act protects an estimated 30% of all rental units nationwide from eviction until at least July 25.

However, the majority of tenants don’t know if their dwelling qualifies, and also don’t know how to provide or demand that information in a court hearing, according to a news release.

The CARES Act Eviction Information Hotline, operated by UNC’s Civil Legal Assistance Clinic and immigration advocacy organization Siembra NC, will help Spanish-speaking tenants identify whether their dwellings are covered under the CARES Act, and will present them with information to help them advocate for themselves in eviction hearings.

“This service will give Latino tenants access to information that could help them avoid eviction if their landlord takes them to court,” said Andrew Willis Garcés, director of Siembra NC. “We know Latinos are less likely to have access to attorneys or even to be able to read a court summons posted on their door, and we’re grateful to the UNC Civil Legal Assistance Clinic for their help in making sure tenants know their rights.”

The Latinx community accounts for more than 45% of all coronavirus cases in North Carolina, despite making up only about 10% of the statewide population, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Nearly half of all Spanish-speaking tenants in the state surveyed by Siembra NC reported they were unable to pay their full rent in May. Latinx tenants have also sent Siembra staff sent dozens of photos of letters sent to them from landlords demanding full payment and threatening eviction.

Eviction creates negative collateral consequences for individuals and communities. Particularly during the pandemic, eviction is a major public health problem, the release states. Congress decided to prevent evictions temporarily from properties with federal subsidies, tax credits, or federally-backed mortgages, but landlords benefit from an information advantage as to whether the law applies.

“We are grateful for Chief Justice Beasley’s recent order, which requires landlords to state affirmatively whether or not their properties are covered,” said Kathryn Sabbeth, associate professor of law and director of the Civil Legal Assistance Clinic. “But we believe tenants should also get an opportunity to test the landlords’ claims and access the underlying documents. As it is, tenants are significantly disadvantaged because the supply of tenants’ lawyers has not kept up with the numbers of tenants facing eviction. With this hotline, we hope to make a small dent in equalizing the playing field.”

Individuals seeking assistance from the CARES Act Eviction Information Line should send a text message with their full address, and property name if known, to the hotline: (919) 590-9165. Tenants will then receive an information packet via both text message and U.S. Mail based on the research results for their property.

Information provided by hotline operators will include:

• short infographics designed for social media and WhatsApp groups
• a guide to CARES Act protections
• the actual language of the CARES Act eviction moratorium
• a guide to self-representation in an eviction proceeding
• a guide to requesting an interpreter in court
• documents tenants can bring to court and can use to show judges how the law applies

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, immigration, News

North Carolina dreamers heartened for their futures after Supreme Court ruling

Jocelyn Casanova

T he day before Jocelyn Casanova graduated high school, her mother told her she was an undocumented immigrant. She had crossed the desert with her when Casanova was just 4 years old in the hopes of finding a better life and of giving her daughter more opportunity.

“It was just kind of like ripping a Band-aid off,” said Casanova, 24, of finding out.

She wasn’t mad at her mother, but learning about her past meant her future was in jeopardy. She had already applied to colleges and wanted to pursue a career in law, but had to put those plans on hold because of her immigration status.

When the Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented people from deportation who were brought into the country as children, she became a recipient, but there were still a lot of obstacles to her pursuing her goals.

She had to pay out of state tuition to go to a community college in North Carolina, where she grew up, and she couldn’t apply for federal aid. She worked three jobs to pay for school, and still, it wasn’t always enough.

“I’ve had to get really creative as far as bettering myself,” she said in a phone interview Thursday.

That includes putting aside dreams of becoming an immigration attorney in order to learn new skills and soak up all the opportunities she is afforded, in part because of DACA. Most recently, she was able to get an engineering degree through a company sponsorship and she works now as a software engineer in Raleigh. She continues to take classes at Wake Tech.

When the Trump administration rescinded the DACA program in 2017, it instilled a sense of fear in Casanova. She lived in the U.S. almost her entire life, but could suddenly be deported to a land mostly strange to her. She thought she was dreaming Thursday when she woke up to the news that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the administration’s decision to end the program was against the law.

“I had to do a double take; is this really happening?” she said. “I shed a couple tears because it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders.”

She said the decision is a victory, but immigrants and DACA recipients, also called dreamers, should not stop fighting for their future.

“We still need a permanent solution for our dreamers who are constantly trying to pursue the American Dream,” Casanova said. “It felt amazing to not be in limbo after walking down this path and not knowing where you would end up. Happiness is an understatement, especially during this uncertain time where we have a pandemic still going on, and our Black Lives Matter brothers are voicing their concerns with the justice system. Change is happening, and we should still continue to have these conversations as well as continue to count our blessings.”

Casanova is one of about 24,000 DACA holders who live in North Carolina, and among the 700,000 or so recipients nationwide. She said she is grateful to be in the U.S. and wants to continue to go to school, work and contribute to her community.

Oscar Romero is pictured left at a U.S. Supreme Court rally in the fall.

“Honestly all dreamers want, we’re hugging this country and we just want this country to hug us back,” she said. “Hearing this news was like getting a pat on the back. I definitely have a lot of hope and faith for the future. I know that we still have a long road to go down, but I’m very hopeful we’re going to see change.”

DACA is a temporary fix for recipients of the program, who don’t otherwise have a permanent path to U.S. citizenship. Last June, the U.S. House passed legislation that would safeguard the program and provide a pathway to citizenship. The bill has not been taken up in the U.S. Senate.

Still, the Supreme Court news from Thursday brought many people comfort this week. Oscar Romero, of Charlotte, said he was in complete shock when he read about the ruling.

“This was a turn of events that I don’t think anyone expected,” he said. “I just broke out into tears, just full joy. … While it doesn’t fix everything for us, it’s definitely a breath of relief for all of us who have been holding our breath this whole time.”I just broke out into tears, just full joy. -Oscar Romero Click To Tweet

The 25-year-old was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 4. The DACA program changed the entire trajectory of his life, he said. Before the program, he couldn’t legally drive and he had to work jobs where he was paid “under the table.”

“It’s completely opened up so many opportunities for me,” he said, adding that he’s since finished college on a scholarship. “This is a great victory regardless of what lies ahead. Like Black Lives Matter, this is a topic that we shouldn’t just put away.”

Many of the dreamers who talked to NC Policy Watch had similar stories of how DACA helped them get to where they are.

Daniel Bello is no longer a DACA recipient — he has a green card now — but it was the program that helped him be able to go to college. Now he’s in his third year of law school at Campbell University.

He was cautiously optimistic Thursday about the high court’s ruling.

“I’m very happy, but I know that they’ll probably try to challenge it again,” he said.

Daniel Bello

Bello, 30, pointed out that DACA recipients undergo background checks and are required to meet certain standards to be eligible for the program. There are also a lot of misconceptions about immigrants.

“DACA recipients consider the U.S. our home, because we’ve been here our whole lives, and we love this country and just want a chance to participate,” he said. “Based on our record and education, we are likely to become a benefit to the economy in a very positive way.”

Carla Mena, also 30, told her story to Policy Watch on Thursday. She said there was an added pressure on the first generation DACA holders like herself to be successful and to pave the way.

“We are the oldest children of the first-generation immigrant community, and there’s a lot of responsibility in general when it comes to being the eldest in the line of children,” she said.

They live bicultural and bilingual lives and feel at times as if they don’t belong in one world or the other. Only dreamers can really understand what they go through at times, Mena said. And they fought hard before 2012 to be an active part of their communities.

“We were marching; we were doing hunger strikes; we were occupying officials’ offices,” she said. “I think that the biggest takeaway is we are not just hardworking when it comes to our jobs, we are hardworking for what we believe is right. We believe that we deserve better, that our families deserve better.”We believe that we deserve better, that our families deserve better. -Carla Mena Click To Tweet

The elder DACA holders are teaching the younger dreamers to also fight and to build resiliency. They are taking care of one other. Mena said in a lot of ways, they had an even harder time with the Trump administration’s rescission, because they grew up with the program available to them and then had to cope when it could just be taken away.

Casanova, one of those younger dreamers, said she is thankful her parents made the choice to bring her to the U.S. so she could have a chance at a better future. She encouraged her peers to vote — because DACA holders can’t — and to be a champion for immigrants.

“They are the real dreamers who had the dream of a better life for us, their children,” she said of her parents. “They didn’t want us to suffer like they did. We owe it to them to keep fighting for the American Dream.

“Like my mom always says to me in Spanish with everything I do, ‘Mija, echale ganas,’ meaning ‘Daughter, do your best.’ We must continue to give it our all because the fight is not over yet. We have to be strategic and organized about the upcoming battles.”