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

Voting rights advocates vow to keep fighting for fair, accessible, just election

(Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Questions about what the upcoming election will look like in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic have been circulating for weeks in North Carolina.

House lawmakers introduced a bipartisan measure to address some concerns about accessibility to the ballot, but later the same day, a number of voting rights organizations filed a federal lawsuit challenging several of the state’s registration and voting requirements, including the witness requirement for absentee ballot signatures, limited registration period for new voters, and the lack of safe accommodations for in-person polling places.

Advocates have praised the measure, House Bill 1169, but they’ve also pointed to issues it doesn’t address, like prepaid postage for by-mail absentee ballots and contactless drop boxes where ballots could be dropped off.

Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy NC also said lawmakers haven’t been able to work in a bipartisan fashion on other important democratic issues so voters have to be vigilant. “None of us are here calling for an all-mail election,” he said, adding that there still needed to be measures in place to protect a system that was not built for a surge of absentee ballots.

Lopez and other advocates representing more than 30 national and local civil and voting rights and social justice organizations held a virtual press conference to preview a virtual day of action tomorrow. It’s expected to serve as a unify and mobilize people to assert that they will fight “from now until November” for a just democracy.

House lawmakers will discuss HB 1169 at a House Elections and Ethics Law Committee at 9 a.m. Wednesday. The virtual day of action events begin at 2 p.m.

The #ProtectOurVoteNC Virtual Day of Action corresponds with the continuation of the General Assembly’s short session when legislators are making crucial decisions that could shape the state’s 2020 elections. Participating organizations are fighting barriers to voting imposed by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, as well those who are using a deadly pandemic for political gain and profits.

“Even through our grief, our anger, our sorrow and pain, and yes, our fears, we will stay in covenant with our long history of fighting for a representative democracy that lives up the hopes of our ancestors and ambitions of children’s greatest dreams,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman. “Our voice matters; our votes matter; our lives matter.”

“North Carolina is a testing ground for this nation,” Spearman said. “The fight over our democracy has dominated cycles and cycles of news coverage. We have won tremendous victories against bold, unapologetic efforts to silence and suppress the voices of Black voters, LatinX, the poor, women, immigrants and workers. Tomorrow we’re calling on the North Carolina General Assembly to turn the page on that chapter and commit to making North Carolina a laboratory for making our democracy the most accessible in this nation, the most free, the most fair, the most just, the most safe.”

Democracy North Carolina, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and six individual voters filed the federal lawsuit late Friday. They are represented by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Fair Elections Center and pro bono counsel from law firm WilmerHale in Washington, D.C. Read the full lawsuit below.

Complaint LWV Dem NC (Text)

COVID-19, Defending Democracy, News, Voting

Bipartisan elections bill filed; would quell some voter access concerns amid COVID-19

The bipartisan election bill North Carolinians have been waiting weeks to see is finally here.

House lawmakers filed House Bill 1169 this morning, and it contains a lot of the measures the State Board of Elections and voting rights advocates have asked for to prepare for conducting an election in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill reduces the requirement for absentee mail-in ballots from two witnesses to one; it gives counties greater flexibility in where they assign poll workers; it allows voters to submit an absentee ballot request form via email, online portal, fax, mail or in-person (currently voters can submit an absentee ballot request form only by mail or in person); it allocates matching funds to receive federal dollars made available through the CARES Act and directs money to counties for preparation of election administration during the pandemic.

“This bill is a positive step toward ensuring every eligible North Carolina voter is able to safely and securely cast a ballot in this year’s elections,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC. “We applaud members on both sides of the aisle for this bipartisan effort. As the bill makes its way through each legislative chamber, we urge lawmakers to be responsive to suggestions from election experts and the public. Ultimately, it is crucial that we work together to fully prepare our state to conduct an election that is free and fair for all.”

Lawmakers are set to discuss the bill at a House Elections and Ethics Law Committee at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Primary sponsors of House Bill 1169 include Rep. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover) and Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell), who are both co-chairs of the Committee that will meet next week. Committee members Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake) and Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) are also sponsors of the measure.

There are at least two lawsuits pending to try and force the state to make elections more accessible in North Carolina. HB 1169, if passed, would satisfy most of the requests that plaintiffs have made in those suits.

The bill would prohibit the State Board of Elections from moving to an all mail election or sending ballots to North Carolinians who didn’t request them. It should be noted, though, that neither the Board or voting rights advocates ever asked for an all mail election.

House Speaker Tim Moore commended lawmakers in a Friday news release for their work on the measure.

“Voters deserve consensus bipartisan efforts to improve our elections systems, and this General Assembly will provide the necessary funding and reforms to effectively administer elections in the 2020 cycle,” he said.

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, News, Voting

GOP runoff primary moved from May to June 23 in response to COVID-19 pandemic

N.C. State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell

North Carolina State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell announced today that she is moving the Republican runoff primary for the 11th Congressional district from May 12 to June 23 in response to the public health emergency around COVID-19.

Bell said that in crises the agency is tasked not with stopping elections but with finding a safe and accessible way to proceed. She signed an executive order today moving the election, extending some related deadlines and closing county boards of elections offices to the public. Those boards will continue to accept voter registration forms, absentee request forms and other documents.

She made the announcement to the State Board of Elections at its noon meeting today. Board members supported the decision, and one person asked the public, candidates for office and committees for patience and cooperation.

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), who is a chair of the new legislative COVID-19 working group, also tweeted out a statement shortly after the announcement in support of the decision.

“The safety of our voters, poll workers, and elections board staff members must be our paramount concern during this present crisis,” he said. “I fully support the Executive Director’s decision to delay the runoff primary and look forward to working with her staff on any additional legislative measures that could be necessary.”

No Republican candidate received the 30 percent of votes required in the 11th district to avoid a runoff second primary. Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) has represented the 11th district since 2013 but announced in December he would not seek another term. He was recently tapped by President Donald Trump to become the White House’s next Chief of Staff.

The second primary election will be held in the 17 western North Carolina counties that make up the 11th district: Avery, Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania and Yancey.

Madison Cawthorn, who finished second according to unofficial results, with 20.38 percent of the vote, requested a second primary against top vote-getter Lynda Bennett, who received 22.72 percent of the vote.

No other second primaries will be held this year in North Carolina.

All registered Republicans who live in the 11th Congressional District may vote in the second primary; they did not have to vote in the first primary to be eligible to vote in the second primary.

Also eligible are unaffiliated voters who live in the 11th Congressional District who either didn’t vote in the March primary, or who voted a Republican ballot in the primary. Unaffiliated voters who voted a nonpartisan, Democratic, or Libertarian ballot in the first primary may not participate in the second primary.

Voters do not need a photo ID to cast a ballot in the second primary; temporary injunctions preventing implementation of the photo ID law remain in place. The law was enjoined by a federal district court on Dec. 31 and by the North Carolina Court of Appeals on Feb. 18.

Bell’s decision came after consultation with state emergency officials, Republican Party leaders and elections officials in the counties that make up the 11th District, according to a news release from the State Board. All agreed that moving the second primary to a later date was the right decision in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The health and safety of North Carolina voters, election staff and poll workers is our top priority during this time,” Bell said. “State and county elections officials are working hard on plans to ensure voters can cast ballots safely in all future elections, even if the threat from COVID-19 persists.”

The order also allows the 17 counties in the 11th Congressional district to move or consolidate voting precincts, if necessary because of the pandemic, for the second primary only and with the approval of the State Board executive director. This is to make sure that polling places are available and will be adequately staffed for in-person voting.

This week, Bell also formed the North Carolina Task Force on Elections & COVID-19 Response, which includes about 20 state and county elections officials and a state Emergency Management representative. The Task Force met telephonically for the first time Wednesday.

Read Bell’s full executive order below.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated as more information becomes available.

Order 2020 03 20 (Text)

News, Voting

NC Super Tuesday overall turnout down from 2016, but it’s not all drab news

Overall voter participation on Super Tuesday was down this year compared to 2016, but it’s not all bad news. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Voter turnout on Super Tuesday was down slightly from the 2016 presidential primary election, but Democratic turnout was up, according to preliminary statistics.

Overall, 31 percent of North Carolinians registered to vote cast a ballot yesterday compared to almost 36 percent in the 2016 primary election. The results were expected by pollsters and mimicked trends in other states, according to Public Policy Polling Director Tom Jensen.

“I think overall turnout was down a bit simply because the Presidential race is what drives voters to the polls, and since both sides had a competitive primary in 2016 but only the Democrats did this year, Republican turnout was down,” he said in an email Wednesday. “When the most competitive race on your side is Lieutenant Governor, it’s not a big turnout driver.”

He said it was probably a good sign for Democrats that their primary turnout was up from 1,322,433 votes cast for president yesterday compared to 1,142,916 in 2016.

“That has a lot to do with which ballot unaffiliated [voters] picked but it still shows a pretty healthy increase, and that’s a trend that’s been seen in other states as well,” Jensen added.

There are more registered unaffiliated voters in North Carolina this year (2,294,966) than registered Republicans (2,075,680). Democrats, though, still hold the top spot with 2,526,279 registered voters.

Warren County appeared to have the biggest voter turnout percentage-wise on Super Tuesday with nearly 57 percent of all registered voters there casting a ballot. The Board of Elections Director there, Debbie Formyduval, said county-wide turnout is always good, but the local school board and county commissioner races were big draws this time around.

“We have a very strong political county,” she said. “We really do have good turnout in my county.”

The number of registered voters was down in Warren County this year with 12,975, compared to 13,315 in 2016, but the overall turnout was up from 41 percent in 2016. The county has just shy of 21,000 residents, according to the 2010 Census, and 52 percent of the population is Black. There are also more registered Black voters there this year, 6,733, than there are white voters, 5,126.

Formyduval said the county had a lot of early voters, and that for the most part, Super Tuesday operations went really well. Her staff was prepared for the usual election scramble and were ready to direct voters to their proper voting precincts as they needed assistance.

It was the first county-wide race in which Warren County used a new express vote system with iVote touch screens. Formyduval said they tested the systems in the November municipal elections, so poll workers were prepared, but it was a new experience for many voters.

“We had no problems [with it],” she added, noting that there was good feedback from voters as well.

She said that the county has very accurate systems with updated addresses, and credited that in part for having such high turnout. She also gushed about Warren County voters in general.

“I’m just really proud of all my voters for showing up yesterday,” she added. “That really is key, and the one thing we have control over is our ability to vote.”