Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NC advocates call for ‘common sense’ democracy reform

North Carolina advocates called on their elected leaders Friday to pass needed reform to combat corruption and strengthen democracy.

Melissa Price Kromm, Director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, La’Meisha Whittington with the N.C. Black Alliance and Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause N.C., gathered on the front lawn of the General Assembly and called for the passage of the For the People Act (HR1) in Congress.

The measure is a comprehensive set of anti-corruption, election security and political reforms that directly respond to the issues raised in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. The U.S. Senate voted yesterday to acquit Trump on articles of impeachment.

“We have to keep fighting at all fronts,” Kromm said. “We are here to say enough is enough; we will fight for democracy; we will save our country, because that’s what true patriots do.”

Whittington said it became very clear during the impeachment trial that the political system is broken. She said that the nation needs to focus on removing barriers that prevents access to the ballot, updating voter systems and securing election infrastructure.

“This act ensures fair maps, automatic voter registration and other common sense democracy reform,” she said.

The advocates also called on North Carolina legislators to pass similar democracy reforms, in addition to ensuring that voters are informed of the money behind elections, strengthening revolving door laws and enacting nonpartisan redistricting reform.

Phillips pointed out that lawmakers are still not discussing redistricting reform, even after being forced by the courts to redraw both the legislative and congressional voting maps because of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.

“If this year comes and goes and nothing is done, the people will notice,” he said. “Until we get [redistricting reform], we’re going to have a lot of problems with our democracy.”

The time to act is now, Phillips added.

Defending Democracy, News

Tomorrow: Regular voter registration deadline for 2020 primary election

The deadline for regular voter registration to cast a ballot in the North Carolina 2020 primary is tomorrow, Feb. 7, but it won’t be the last opportunity.

North Carolinians who miss the regular deadline can still register and vote at any one-stop early voting site in their county during the early voting period from Feb. 13 to 29. There, registered voters may update their address, but not their political party affiliation.

Registered voters who wish to change their party affiliation have to do so by tomorrow.

“The State Board [of Elections] encourages every eligible North Carolina resident to make sure they’re registered before the primary election,” said Board Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell in a news release. “This includes making any changes, such as address and party affiliation.”

To register to vote, individuals must meet certain qualifications and complete a North Carolina Voter Registration Application (available in English or Spanish). Applications are available at the State and County Boards of Elections, public libraries, public high schools, college admissions offices and many state agencies. Voters can check their current voter registration status online.

Once completed, the applicant must sign the form, and mail it or return it in person to their county board of elections. Voters who are already registered may update their information by submitting a voter registration form by email, fax, mail, or in-person to their county board of elections.

Prospective voters must meet the following qualifications to register to vote:

  • Be a U.S. citizen;
  • Have been a resident of North Carolina, the county, and precinct for 30 days before the election;
  • Be at least 18 years old; 17-year-olds may register and vote in a primary election if they will be 18 at the time of the general election; and
  • Not be serving a sentence for a felony conviction (including probation or parole). (Citizenship and voting rights are automatically restored upon completion of the sentence. No special document is needed.)

Voters are NOT required to show a photo ID for the March 2020 primary election. In a Dec. 31 order, a federal district court blocked North Carolina’s voter photo ID requirement from taking effect. The injunction will remain in place until further order of the court.

Defending Democracy, News

Ahead of historic impeachment vote, Senators Tillis and Burr heap praise on President Trump

President Donald Trump did not mention his impeachment trial in Tuesday night’s State of the Union, but later today the U.S. Senate will hold a final vote on two articles of impeachment.

North Carolina Senator Richard Burr and Thom Tillis have made it clear they will not vote to remove the President from office. Indeed the Republican-controlled chamber is expected to stick with Trump this election year and vote to acquit.

Last night following the State of the Union,  both Burr and Tillis took to social media to praise Trump.

Here’s how Senator Burr re-capped the speech:

Senator Tillis went a step further posting a video in which he said he was proud to support President Trump and looks forward to working with him in the next Congress.

The impeachment trial resumes today at 9:30am. A final vote on the articles of impeachment has been scheduled for 4:00pm this afternoon in the Senate.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Next week: Two-day event aims to find solutions to rising court fines, fees

Court fines and fees have long burdened North Carolina residents convicted of even the most minor crimes and traffic violations, and the cost is only increasing.

The North Carolina Fines and Fees Coalition wants that to change. The multi-organizational group consists of community members, attorneys and researchers across the state who are working to end the criminalization of poverty and ultimately, the funding the court system on the backs of the poor.

The People’s Convening on Fines and Fees in NC, co-hosted by the NC Fines and Fees Coalition and the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program, will serve as the official campaign launch to “End Criminal Justice Debt in North Carolina.” It’s a two-day event that starts at 11 a.m. Friday, Feb. 14 and ends at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15.

“The convening will provide space to define the issue through simulations and panel discussions led by directly-impacted people with input from local and national advocates,” the website for the event states. “We will then work towards solutions by highlighting current practices and proposing innovative ideas to implement change in NC. We hope this convening will serve as an opportunity to expand our coalition and develop a base of supporters across NC whose voices and participation will be vital to the success of the campaign.”

North Carolina has steadily increased the breadth and harshness of court fines and fees over the years. In addition, in 2014, legislators passed a statute that requires the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to report how many court costs, fines and fees are waived by county and by judge. It resulted in a large decline in the amount of debt waivers issued across the state.

To compound that result, lawmakers passed a law in 2018 specifying that no court may waive or remit all or part of any court fines or costs without providing 15 days’ notice and an opportunity to be heard to all government entities affected by the monetary collection.

It’s had a chilling effect on court debt waivers, and individual judges have steadily decreased the number of waivers they issue.

“Tackling a challenge as systemic and burdensome as court fines and fees requires a fully informed, on-the-ground understanding of how it impacts real people in real American communities,” states the Feb. 14 event description.

Individuals who are interested in attending the People’s Convening on Fines and Fees can still register for the event (online here), which will be held at Bennett College in Greensboro. It’s free to attend and there is travel and lodging assistance available.

Note: The North Carolina Justice Center, the parent organization of NC Policy Watch, is a member of the Fines and Fees Coalition.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Legislative defendants still arguing about gerrymandering case they lost, this time in 4th Circuit

Think North Carolina’s voting maps are settled? Think again. Attorneys for Republican lawmakers went before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals today and argued to have the Common Cause v. Lewis case moved from state court to federal court — even though it’s already been decided in state court, and the State Board of Elections has prepared for the elections under the newly-drawn maps.

The Common Cause case was filed in November 2018 and challenged partisan gerrymandering in legislative districts as a violation of the North Carolina Constitution. Republican legislative defendants already tried once, unsuccessfully, to move the case to federal court. The case before the 4th Circuit in Richmond today is the appeal of that effort.

A three-judge panel from Wake County Superior Court ruled unanimously in September that the districts were illegally gerrymandered for partisan gain, violating the State Constitution, and they ordered new districts be drawn. The newly-drawn state House and Senate districts were adopted shortly after for the 2020 election, and primary election voting is now underway.

The 4th Circuit three-judge panel presiding over the appellate case is Judge Roger Gregory, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz — both appointed by former President Bill Clinton — and Judge Julius Richardson, a President Donald Trump appointee.

Oral arguments from the case have not yet been posted, but will be available on the 4th Circuit website within one day.

“It’s baffling why the legislative leadership is wasting taxpayer money on this appeal,” said Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause. “The Supreme Court told us gerrymander challenges are best handled at the state court. So we did that and won. [It’s] time for leadership to stop spending tax dollars on frivolous challenges and work with all of us for reform.”

The three-judge panel that presided over the case in state court ordered the legislative defendants last week to pay the plaintiffs $102,343.89 in the Common Cause case. More than $69,000 of that will be paid to the Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer law firm for deposition costs and expert witness fees and the remaining more than $33,000 will be paid to court-appointed referee Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford Law professor.

The costs will be paid with tax dollars and don’t include the cost of the legislative defendants’ attorneys.