Defending Democracy, News

Voters weigh in on ballot box access, democracy

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently came to Raleigh to discuss voter access.

Several people attended and spoke during the public comment period at the day-long event. NC Policy Watched asked a few folks they thought voter access meant to a democracy.

“It seems to me like it’s a very basic right – one person, one vote. There’s no other way in the world to have a voice in a big system that’s a lot of bureaucracies, a lot of cultural norms. Through that vote, I hope I can go say, and I hope others can go say what they believe is important to them and their families and their communities.” – Dana Courtney, 77, Alamance County

“Every human being that is living, breathing, has the opportunity to vote for people who can advocate for them in their situation.” – John P. Comer, 36, lives in Baltimore but raised in Raleigh

“As is right now, voter access is not very accessible, at least not to minorities and people of color, definitely not to disenfranchised people. We need a better process. This country has so many technological advances and so many people who are smart, there has to be a better way that they can include everyone.” – Karla Austin, 37, Fayatteville

“It means that every single American citizen has equitable access to the ballot box, and that access can never be taken away. It means that the right to vote is a permanent right acquired upon citizenship. For me it really is about equity, it’s about making sure that if you have the right to vote, you should always have the right to vote regardless of your circumstance, regardless of your choices.” – Heather Ahn-Redding, 39, Orange County

“Make it easy. Don’t make it harder. We just need more access, not less. That’s what it means to me.” – O’Linda McSurely, 63, Carthage

“Voter access would be the cornerstone of what it means to have a true and authentic democracy. It still debases democracy or the idea of democracy if people have to resort to extraordinary efforts just to exercise a fundamental right.” – Kevin Myles, 48, Atlanta, NAACP Southeast Regional Director, which includes North Carolina

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

SCOTUS denies stay in Pennsylvania partisan gerrymandering case

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito denied a stay request Monday in a Pennsylvania partisan gerrymandering case, which means lawmakers there have 10 days to redraw congressional maps.

The denial comes less than a month after the court stayed an order requiring North Carolina lawmakers to redraw congressional maps after a lower court found they used unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering to achieve a specific outcome.

Neither of the orders in the Pennsylvania or the North Carolina cases explains why justices ruled the way they did.

Alito appears to be the only justice to have weighed in on the Pennsylvania stay denial, while the entire high court reviewed the North Carolina stay (Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor would have denied it).

The Supreme Court is also still reviewing a request from North Carolina lawmakers to block a special master’s plan for several state House and Senate districts from being used in the elections later this year. That case, North Carolina v. Covington, stems from racial gerrymandering.

Trying to keep up with all the redistricting cases in North Carolina? Read more here about the state of litigation.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

US Commission on Civil Rights hears from all sides on voter access during day-long hearing

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a hearing in Raleigh Friday (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

It could be argued that North Carolina has been ground zero when it comes to litigation over voting rights, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently took notice.

The Commission held a public briefing Friday in Raleigh as part of its ongoing assessment of federal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Members heard from a diverse group of expert panelists and more than 30 people who signed up to speak during public comment.

The first panel of the day focused on voting rights in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which removed a federal preclearance requirement for certain areas before making changes to their voting laws or practices.

Shortly after that decision was handed down, North Carolina’s “monster” voting law was passed, which enacted a voter identification requirement and eliminated several processes, including valid out-of-precinct voting and same-day registration during early voting period.

Vanita Gupta, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the Shelby decision dramatically weakened the government’s ability to get involved in challenges to voter access.

“The litigation is slow; it is enormously time-intensive; it ties up valuable resources,” she said.

And elections are going on during that litigation, which creates a very real consequence for voters who are disenfranchised, Gupta said.

Without preclearance, she added that there will be no prophylactic review process for 2020 redistricting. That combined with the U.S. Department of Justice switching gears when it comes to voter access under Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the creation of a voter fraud commission seems to be a prelude to purging votes, she said.

Hans von Spakovsky, an attorney and a former member of the Federal Election Commission, disagreed and said Section 5 of the VRA (which is no longer used after the Shelby decision) was used to prevent locales from evading court orders and court remedies.

“Because that is so rare today … there’s no reason for Section 5 to be put back in for coverage,” he said.

Justin Levitt, a professor of law at Loyola Los Angeles School, said the Shelby decision left Americans less able to defend themselves in terms of fighting for voting rights.

“I fear that the worst is yet to come,” he said.

Levitt added that when lawmakers dig in during the litigation process, they don’t bare the costs, the taxpayers do. He echoed Gupta’s remarks and said that litigation is expensive and slow and as elections still occur, it leads to the same lawmakers becoming incumbents, who subsequently enact more discriminatory policies.

“Those elections cannot be undone,” he said.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber referred to it as the unconstitutionally constituted legislature.

Panelists took several questions from the Commission. Vice Chair Patricia Timmons-Goodson took the opportunity to ask about judicial redistricting, which is a proposal in North Carolina that would change the way judges and prosecutors are elected. She wanted to know about the potential discriminatory effect.

Levitt responded and said her question was part of the point of the detriment of the Shelby decision. He said proving discrimination if such a plan was enacted would take years, as would litigation.

“If they are [discriminatory], that will affect the character of the justice that the people of North Carolina receive while they wait on litigation,” he added.

A little over 30 people spoke during the public comment portion of the day-long event. Some were in favor of stronger voting laws and many were in favor of creating more access for voters.

Jay DeLancy, the Voter Integrity Project Director, told Commissioners that voter fraud is “easy to commit, hard to detect and impossible to prosecute.”

Mary Elizabeth Hanchey, of the NC Council of Churches, argued a different point. She said “we are drowning in artful barriers to [voting] access.”

“It is no accident of history that we are still talking about this today,” she said.

Similarly, Ajamu Dillahunt, told Commissioners that those barriers directly impacted college students, and particularly those enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, which was split down the middle during the last redistricting process.

“This was a direct attempt to suppress the power of the back student vote,” he said.

Commissioners will use Friday’s feedback as a basis for its 2018 report to Congress about the state of voting rights across the nation.

Commentary, Defending Democracy

The best editorial of the weekend: This Supreme Court ruling was a “no-brainer”

The Winston-Salem Journal was on the money over the weekend with its assessment of the recent state Supreme Court ruling striking down the General Assembly’s heavy-handed power grab vis a vis the State Board of Elections. This is from the editorial:

“Kudos to the state Supreme Court for striking down an attempt by the Republican legislature to revamp the state elections board, part of a legislative movement to weaken gubernatorial powers after Republican Gov. Pat McCrory lost his seat to Democrat Roy Cooper in 2016.

Shortly after McCrory’s loss, Republicans rushed through legislation altering the make-up of election boards on the state and county levels and limiting the governor’s ability to appoint members, a power that the governor’s office had possessed for decades before Cooper’s election. The make-up of these election boards could influence voting hours and poll locations in this year’s elections.

Especially onerous was the legislature’s requirement that election boards be composed of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans — a recipe for gridlock and stalemate.

‘In a 4-3 ruling that breaks down along the court’s partisan lines, the justices found that a law passed in 2017 that merged the state Board of Elections with the state Ethics Commission and limited Cooper’s power to appoint a majority of its members violated the state Constitution’s separation of powers clause,’ the N&O reported….

Voting rights advocates embraced the decision from the state’s highest court.

‘Today’s ruling rejects a law that amounted to an unlawful power grab by the North Carolina General Assembly,’ said Tomas Lopez, the director of Democracy NC. ‘The public deserves a political system that respects its will. We welcome this decision and are hopeful that it will dissuade our leaders from future attempts to entrench their power.’

He’s right. The legislature’s heavy-handed legislation was not fair to the governor or fair to the voters, who elected Cooper expecting him to have the same powers and responsibilities as his predecessor.

In fact, it’s a no-brainer. The legislature, regardless of which party controls it, shouldn’t have the right to subtract gubernatorial powers if its party’s candidate loses.”

Amen to that. Click here to read the entire editorial.

Defending Democracy, Education, Environment, News

The Week’s Top Five on Policy Watch

1. The state of NC’s redistricting battles: A litigation cheat sheet for those trying to keep track

North Carolina’s redistricting plans have drawn major court involvement over the last few years, and it’s not looking promising that trend will change in 2018.

There are five pending redistricting cases, four of which have had some action in the past month and it’s not easy to keep them straight. They involve legislative and congressional maps, partisan and racial gerrymandering and state and federal courts.

The state is so deep in litigation over its maps that it’s not even clear what the elections later this year will look like for certain voting districts. Policy Watch has put together a helpful guide on where things currently stand and in which court. [Read more…]

*** Bonus reads:

2. Four GOP senators send puzzling letter to EPA asking for audit of DEQ

While its House counterpart was holding hearings and hammering out legislation, the Senate Select Committee on River Quality has met one time. It has proposed not a single bill. Since Oct. 3, the committee has essentially disappeared.

Senate River Quality members, along with the rest of their Senate colleagues, then bailed on a vote to study the problem of GenX and emerging contaminants and to fund DEQ to do the work.

Now, four of the Senate committee members  — Trudy Wade, Andy Wells, Bill Rabon and Michael Lee — have sent a letter to the EPA Region 4 administrator asking that the federal government audit DEQ.

The senators requested that the EPA review environmental officials’ handling of the NPDES program — federal wastewater discharge permits whose authority are delegated to the states. Under the guise of “assistance to North Carolina” the subtext of the two-page letter is that DEQ has independently decided, through rules and procedures, not to protect human health and the environment. [Read more…]

*** Bonus read:

3. A rare chance to make trickledown economics work
Why regulators should order utilities and insurance companies to pass along their federal tax windfalls

When Congress and the Trump administration enacted their massive tax cuts for profitable corporations and wealthy individuals at the end of 2017, they (and the corporate special interests behind the scheme) promised – as they always do – that benefits of the cuts would “trickle down” through the economy to average Americans.

You know how this conservative mantra goes:

We’re going to put more money in the pockets of entrepreneurs and innovators so they’ll have the freedom to create new growth and opportunities that will trickle down throughout the American economy!” [Read more…]

4. School administrators report: Benefits of school funding overhaul “ambiguous”
The benefits of a comprehensive overhaul for North Carolina’s school funding system are “at best, ambiguous,” says a new report from the state’s top lobbying outfit for public school administrators.

Officials with the N.C. Association of School Administrators (NCASA) turned over their weighty report to state lawmakers Wednesday, with legislators on a joint task force still gathering feedback on a possible K-12 funding model facelift in the coming months.

NCASA leaders said they consulted superintendents, finance chiefs and experts from across North Carolina in developing their recommendations, which, above all, emphasized that legislators’ policy and overall funding decisions are of greater import than the type of funding model they ultimately choose.[Read more…]

***  Bonus read:

5. Ideological battles at UNC continue as board considers equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion report

Last week the UNC Board of Governors received a report summarizing Equal Opportunity and Diversity & Inclusion services at the system’s 17 schools and whether they could be consolidated and centralized for cost savings.

The short answer, according to the report: Consolidation is possible, but isn’t likely to save much money. Also, doing so could hurt the good work being done across the system to conform to federal equal opportunity rules and create more diverse and inclusive campus communities.

In a committee meeting ahead of last week’s full board meeting, some of the more conservative members of the almost entirely Republican board questioned the “return on investment” of the diversity programs and personnel and criticized how the work is done. [Read more…]

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Prof. Peter Edelman discusses his new book, Not a Crime to be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America

Friday, February 16, 2018 at noon

Learn more and register today.