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

Voting rights advocates sue over ExpressVote machines; want hand-marked paper ballots for upcoming election

COVID-19 isn’t slowing down voting rights advocates in North Carolina; today they filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court challenging a new voting system that’s used in 21 counties, including Mecklenburg.

The 31-page lawsuit alleges the new system, called ExpressVote, is vulnerable to security threats, and its results are unverifiable by voters because it uses a barcode for tabulation; use of the system violates the North Carolina Constitution’s guarantees of free and fair elections and the equal protection of the law.

“The ExpressVote is an insecure, unreliable, unverifiable and unsafe machine that threatens the integrity of North Carolina’s elections,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President of the North Carolina NAACP. “The new electronic system converts voters’ votes and ballots into undecipherable barcodes, forcing voters to cast a vote they cannot read. These North Carolina counties must move to hand-marked paper ballots to restore voters’ trust in the integrity of our elections.”

The NC NAACP and several voters filed the lawsuit, and they are represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Free Speech For People and the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP.

They also allege in the lawsuit that the new system, implemented ahead of the election this fall, is particularly perilous during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus can be spread through contact with the touchscreen computer or other parts of the machine.

Election Systems & Software, the company which manufactures and markets the ExpressVote machines, has said there are remedial steps which election officials can take to mitigate threat of the virus, such as cleaning the machines after contact by each voter. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, however, said those suggested steps are time-consuming, difficult and costly, and they can lead to long lines at polling places.

Such cleaning can also damage the ExpressVote machines and is ineffective in eliminating the coronavirus if improperly done, the said.

John Powers, counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said during a press call Wednesday that the collective consciousness of voting rights advocates have changed in the wake of COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean hackers and hostile nation states are taking a day off.

“The same threats that existed before the panic are still there right now,” he said. “As voting rights advocates, we need to walk and chew gum at the same time in terms of addressing voter access concerns … but we also need to make sure we protect our election systems and don’t take our eye off the ball as the critical 2020 election approaches.”

The defendants in the case include the North Carolina State Board of Elections and the county boards of elections in Alamance, Ashe, Buncombe, Burke, Cherokee, Davie, Davidson, Forsyth, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Lenoir, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Pender, Perquimans, Polk, Rutherford, Surry, Transylvania and Warren counties. Each of those areas use some the ExpressVote machines in some capacity;, whether it’s the main voting machine or used for early voting.

The ExpressVote barcodes can be miscoded or hacked without detection, according to the lawsuit. Its defects and security flaws create the risk that voters in Mecklenburg County and several other North Carolina counties will have their votes cancelled or cast for the wrong candidate.

The lawsuit details problems that have already occurred with the machine. During North Carolina’s March 2020 primary election, ExpressVote machines were left in improper modes, used for types of voting for which the machines had not been authorized, and were responsible for improperly tabulating votes in at least one county.

“The right to vote means the right to have one’s own intended choices recorded and counted, not the choices of a computer running an insecure, unreliable software,” said Courtney Hostetler, Counsel at Free Speech For People.

“Voters who are required to use the ExpressVote voting machine aren’t just losing out on the right to vote—they’re also exposing themselves to a hard-to-disinfect touchscreen that may have been touched by hundreds of voters carrying a deadly virus that can live on surfaces for days. Only hand-marked paper ballots can guarantee North Carolinians a secure, reliable, and safe election.”

Read the full lawsuit below.



NC Voting Machine Complaint FINAL (Text)

COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News

5 Questions: How is the North Carolina prison system keeping inmates safe from COVID-19?

Image: Adobe Stock

As people in the United States are social distancing themselves to protect one other from the spread of COVID-19, inmates in correctional facilities have few such options. They live in close quarters, making it difficult to stay 6 feet apart at all times, as recommended by federal health officials, and they have even more limited choices for sanitation and hygiene.

Still, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety says it’s taking several measures to prevent a widespread outbreak of the disease that causes the new coronavirus.

DPS Communications Officer for Adult Corrections John Bull discussed the situation with Policy Watch and outlined the prison system’s current safety measures.

1. How is the North Carolina corrections system preparing for coronavirus?

A number of actions are being taken. Please see the attached press release (uploaded below).

2. Is alcohol-based hand sanitizer considered contraband in North Carolina prisons (the product contains a high percentage of alcohol that can be separated out from the gel substance)? If so, is there an alternative?  What cleaning products are available to inmates for their individual cells?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is considered contraband in North Carolina prisons, as it is in many other prisons. Offenders and staff are being urged to do the following:

  • Wash your hands frequently during the day, especially before eating or handling food. Scrub hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before rinsing completely with warm water.
  • After washing your hands, avoid potential for re-contamination by using a paper towel to turn off faucets or open doors.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are displaying symptoms of illness.
  • Correction Enterprise is creating a non-alcohol sanitizing lotion for use in Department of Public Safety. Until the lotion supplies are delivered, offenders will continue to use soap. All prisons are well stocked with soap and disinfectants.

3. Are there currently any suspected cases of coronavirus among the state’s inmate population?

No.

4. What would the protocol be if someone in prison tested positive for coronavirus?

Offenders who test positive for COVID-19 would be isolated and treated in keeping with the Division of Prisons infectious disease protocol.

5. Has the North Carolina corrections system dealt with a pandemic or situation like this before? If so, what was it, when and what happened?

The prison system has extensive experience with seasonal outbreaks of the flu, norovirus and other contagious diseases. Patients are isolated, treated and the causes of the illnesses are investigated. I don’t believe anyone has experience with dealing with the challenges of a pandemic. The last one in the United States was the Spanish Flu in 1918, according to the CDC’s website. Prisons staff were very active and successful in handling Influenza A virus subtype H1N1 in 2009.



COVID-19, Defending Democracy, Education, News

Gov. Cooper closes NC schools for at least 2 weeks; prohibits gatherings of more than 100 people

COVID-19 (Image:CDC)

Gov. Roy Cooper announced today that all K-12 schools in North Carolina will be closed beginning Monday for at least two weeks in response to the rapidly changing situation associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus.

He also issued an executive order to prohibit gatherings of more than 100 people. He had issued guidance Thursday to cancel those mass gatherings, but said today that a number of venues were not complying, so his order makes it mandatory.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Cooper explained at a press conference. “I don’t want any regrets in our rear-view mirror when this pandemic subsides. … This is a risk we cannot tolerate. … No concert is worth the spread of this pandemic.”

The executive order does not apply to restaurants, shopping malls or other retail businesses.

Cooper’s announcement about school closures came 24 hours after he said schools would remain open. However, earlier today, Wake County announced a teacher had tested positive for the virus. The Governor said the teacher’s situation didn’t factor into the new decision, but that it was intended to address the patchwork of school closures across the state.

“We need a period of time here to assess the threat of COVID-19 and to make sure we have a coordinated statewide response to deal with the fallout when you don’t have children in schools,” Cooper said. “I’m not sure there is a right or wrong here because there is so much we don’t know. If we are going to err here, we want to err on the side of caution.”

Cooper has appointed a child nutrition task force to work on ways to ensure low-income students can still be fed and have their immediate needs met while out of school.

North Carolina Board of Education Chair Eric Davis also said they are committed to mitigating the impact of the school closures by helping to coordinate food delivery for students and asking the General Assembly to give waivers to school districts. The Board is also working with higher education systems in their responses to the virus.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson said at the Saturday press conference that the decision to close schools was not one they wanted to make, but it is “the right decision.” He said the school districts have been planning for the past week on how to cope with closures.

There have been 23 positive COVID-19 cases in 12 North Carolina counties, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said health officials are continuing to test individuals who have a fever, cough and test negative for the flu.

The situation regarding testing supplies has improved, but she said it’s important to note that getting tested does not mean getting treatment. She added that while testing is an important in the first phase of this work, they are trying to make sure sick people can be treated.

COVID-19 responses are developing and changing multiple times per day. Follow NC Policy Watch for updates as they become available.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Advocates offer pro tips on how to combat burdensome court fines, fees

The People’s Convening on Fines and Fees in North Carolina kicked off a campaign over the weekend to end the practice of saddling poor people with overburdensome court fines and fees.

The two-day event, held at Bennett College in Greensboro, informed attendees about court fines and fees and how they operate in the state, and they allowed impacted individuals to lead discussions. They also proposed solutions and encouraged community members to get involved on the local level.

Below is the information they provided for people to take action.

Court data and the experiences of impacted people show that people involved in North Carolina’s criminal justice system — especially people of color — are too often being set up to fail because of their inability to pay the range of costs that have become attached to virtually every aspect of the criminal justice system, including reentry.

The collateral consequences of criminal justice debt are often long-term, severe, and economically crippling: indefinite driver’s license suspension, violations and extensions of probation, wage garnishment, tax liability, property forfeiture, bankruptcy, civil judgments, liens, and incarceration. People, families, and communities of color disproportionately and more severely experience these costs and collateral harms. 

Outlined below are several education and advocacy efforts that can be pursued in your community by impacted people and their allies, including you. For regular updates on campaign activities and additional materials, please visit https://www.endcriminaljusticedebtnc.org/ and https://ncsecondchance.org/.

  1. Establish a program to eliminate traffic court debt and restore driver’s licenses. 

In NC, failing to pay a traffic ticket causes an automatic, indefinite suspension of a person’s driver’s license. Court data reveals that traffic court costs are very rarely paid after two years of nonpayment. In 2019, district attorneys in Durham and Mecklenburg led initiatives to eliminate millions of dollars in long-term traffic court debt and thousands of driver’s license suspensions. The debt relief programs piloted in these jurisdictions can be efficiently replicated in all North Carolina jurisdictions if there is support from local court officials, including district attorneys, district court judges, and clerks of court.

Local decision-maker(s)/advocacy target(s): district attorney, judges, clerk of court

Contact for additional guidance/support: Laura Holland, NC Justice Center, laura@ncjustice.org, 919-861-1462

Materials and other resources: https://ncsecondchance.org/resources/second-chance-mobility-starter-packet/ https://sites.law.duke.edu/justsciencelab/

  1. Revise the local bail policy to be fairer, reduce pretrial confinement, and comply with the statutory restrictions on secured money bonds.

North Carolina law provides a common-sense procedure for determining conditions of pretrial confinement that only allows a judge to impose a secured cash bond if the judge determines the person is a flight risk, poses a danger of injury to any person, or is likely to tamper with evidence. Unfortunately, many jurisdictions have substituted these statutorily established procedures and considerations with unfair and problematic bail schedules that imposed specific secured cash bond amounts by default based on the charged offense. In 2019, several jurisdictions have piloted bail policies meant to reduce pretrial confinement.

Decision-maker(s)/advocacy target(s): senior superior and chief district court judges, district attorney

Contact for additional guidance/support: Jennifer Marsh, Self-Help, Jennifer.Marsh@self-help.org, 919-956-4692

Materials and other resources: https://cjil.sog.unc.edu/areas-of-work/bail-reform-2-0/

https://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/bail-reform-in-north-carolina-what-are-the-options/ https://www.rstreet.org/2019/04/25/how-a-north-carolina-county-became-a-laboratory-for-bail-reform/

  1. Promote regular use of petition and order forms by local court officials to facilitate fair consideration of a person’s ability to pay a fine and/or fee at sentencing and prior to imposition of any sanction for failure to pay.

Several statutes provide judges the authority to waive and otherwise eliminate fines and fees in a broad range of circumstances, including inability to pay, change of circumstances, and “proper administration of justice”. For several reasons, judges are rarely using their authority to eliminate fines and fees, including the absence of petition and order forms in a court system that is purposely reliant on standard forms. Jurisdictions can adopt local forms based on the templates linked below.

Decision-maker(s)/advocacy target(s): senior superior and chief district court judges, district attorney

Contact for additional guidance/support: Whitley Carpenter, Forward Justice, wcarpenter@forwardjustice.org, 919-323-3889

Materials and other resources: https://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/a-swiss-army-form-for-fines-and-fees/ https://ncsecondchance.org/resources/template-forms-motion-and-order-to-waive-remit-fines-and-fees/

  1. Use court facility fees to establish a municipal fund to help people pay criminal justice debt.

Read more

Defending Democracy, News, public health

ICYMI: Why are so many Black babies dying in North Carolina? (Video)

If you weren’t able to attend NC Policy Watch’s Crucial Conversation about the Black infant mortality rate in the state, that full program is now available online.

This week’s event featured Lynn Bonner of the News & Observer discussing her seven-month project about the racial disparity in infant mortality rates in North Carolina. She reports that Black babies are more than twice as likely to die than white babies. Other panelists were Whitney Tucker, Research Director at NC Child; Rebecca Cerese, Engagement Coordinator for the N.C. Justice Center’s Health Advocacy Project; and Tina Sherman, Campaign Director for the Breastfeeding and Paid Leave Campaigns at MomsRising.

They talked about the extent of the crisis and offered solutions, both long and short term, for combating racism and offering better care to Black pregnant women.

Stay tuned for an announcement coming soon about the next Crucial Conversations event, which will be a happy hour featuring special guests who will discuss all things related to the North Carolina primary election.

In the meantime, please watch and share this special presentation: