News

Early voting bill stirs controversy among watchdogs, Board of Elections

An elections bill filed late Wednesday night and approved by a House committee Thursday morning is causing chaos and concern among state elections officials and watchdog groups.

The new version of Senate Bill 325, which until today was a bill dealing with tax policy, would change early voting, a political and legal flashpoint in the state, in a number of fundamental ways.

Most controversially:

  • Early voting would begin on Wednesday, Oct. 17 and end Friday, Nov. 2. That would eliminate the final Saturday of early voting — the most popular early voting day, especially among Black voters in North Carolina. In 2014, 103,513 voters voted on that day and in 2016 it was 193,138. Unlike Election Day, early voting is a “one stop” period in which people can register to vote on the same day.
  • All early voting sites would have to have uniform hours — 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. — during weekday early voting. While weekend voting could differ from those hours, all sites would still have to have uniform hours. Right now county election boards have the flexibility to determine early voting hours based on past experience and expected traffic.

Presenting the bill during the House committee meeting, Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) said it would provide greater access and uniformity during early voting.

Critics of the proposal disagree. They say mandatory 12 hour shifts at voting sites on weekdays will likely be difficult for some counties to sustain with volunteers already hard to come by. This will likely result in fewer sites, they said.

Greg Flynn, chairman of the Wake County Board of Elections, was on hand to make that point at Thursday’s House committee hearing. He told lawmakers the board is already beginning to plan sites and times. A change of this sort could make that harder, he said.

Flynn took to Twitter throughout the day to comment on the bill and what it would mean for those who organize and volunteer during elections.



Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC, criticized both the process and the effect. “A bill introduced near midnight and rushed through a committee process the next morning could have a major impact on voters’ rights,” Phillips said in a statement.

“Early voting has been widely used by voters of all parties,” Phillips said. “Over the past several elections, hundreds of thousands of ballots have been cast on the final Saturday of early voting. These proposed changes would especially hurt African-American voters, who have utilized early voting at a higher rate than other groups. The result of this senseless bill would be fewer options for voters, confusion among the public and increased barriers to the polls.”

Democracy North Carolina’s Executive Director Tomas Lopez agreed. Read more

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Report: How might the U.S. Supreme Court rule on partisan gerrymandering?

Court watchers across the country were holding their breath this morning for a U.S. Supreme Court opinion on partisan gerrymandering that didn’t come.

Justices heard the Wisconsin partisan gerrymandering case, Gil v. Whitford, in October. They heard arguments in a similar case out of Maryland, Benisek v. Lamone, in March. Whatever decision comes from the high court in either case could have an effect on redistricting practices in legislatures across the nation, including in North Carolina.

The court released a couple of opinions this morning, but the Wisconsin and Maryland cases were not among them. The Hill in Washington D.C., though, published an article speculating what the court might do in the two pending partisan gerrymandering cases.

What might the justices do? We see several possible outcomes.

At one end of the spectrum, the court could categorically reject both challenges as “nonjusticiable.” Partisan gerrymandering, they could say, is fundamentally a political matter, not a legal issue for the courts. Four of the nine justices said just that back in 2004, when the court addressed partisan gerrymandering head on.

At the other end of the spectrum, the court could side with the challengers in both cases and endorse both proposed legal tests. Even under this scenario, the challengers will have more work ahead. It is too late to impose new maps for the 2018 election. Instead, the challengers will aim to have compliant maps in place for 2020. This will likely entail further litigation, because the party in power presumably will try to maintain as much of its existing advantage as possible. Another fight looms when the next round of redistricting takes place after the 2020 census.

A mixed result may be the most likely. The justices could turn away one or both cases on procedural grounds. In particular, a majority may hold that the plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case lack legal standing to challenge the entire statewide map. (Reading the tea leaves, court-watchers have deduced that Chief Justice Roberts, who expressed skepticism about plaintiffs’ standing at oral argument, is probably drafting the Wisconsin opinion.)

A final, unsatisfying possibility is that a majority will not coalesce behind any result. That’s what happened in the 2004 gerrymandering case, which is why the issue is back now. If the justices are struggling to find common ground, they might schedule the cases for re-argument this fall. And they could even add a third case to the mix — a challenge to a North Carolina gerrymander that is also teed up for review. Justice Breyer alluded to this re-argument option during oral argument in the Maryland case.

Read the full article here. Monday is the next chance for opinions from the high court.

Education, News

WRAL: With thousands of teachers descending on Raleigh, records show Superintendent Mark Johnson wrestled with how to respond

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

If you haven’t yet, head over to WRAL for an in-depth exploration of N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson’s emails and texts in the days before more than 20,000 teachers and K-12 advocates swarmed Raleigh last month.

Here’s one highlight of the WRAL report, which included a review of almost 100 pages of Johnson’s texts and emails:

Johnson consulted with three public relations advisers in the weeks before the protest “to explain to the public why he didn’t support the rally and wouldn’t be attending. He worked to highlight ways he has supported teachers and pondered where he should spend the day on May 16 as thousands of educators descended on downtown Raleigh.”

Of course, it’s not unusual for a public official in Johnson’s position to huddle with P.R. advisers to prepare a response to a major political event like this. But the top public school administrator rankled some when he opted last month to speak out against the protest and spent the day reportedly visiting schools more than 100 miles away in Craven County.

The event, which was led by public school advocates in the N.C. Association of Educators, forced 42 of the state’s 115 school districts to close as teachers headed to Raleigh. It was an unprecedented gathering, which directed blistering criticism at mostly Republican leaders in the state legislature over a decade of waning state funding.

From WRAL:

The records revealed he received both praise and criticism from the public for his decision not to attend the rally. Some thanked him for refusing to support an event that “hurts the kids and has caused undue hardship,” while others viewed his refusal to participate as a “lack of support” for teachers.

The superintendent did not respond to all emails from the public. But when he did, he promised to listen, even to those he disagreed with, and shared a list of his top education priorities, including more literacy support for students and reducing over-testing.

Johnson, a Republican, also wrote about his strained relationship with the North Carolina Association of Educators, which organized the teacher rally, and said he and Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, “actually agree on a lot of issues when it comes to education.”

Superintendent: ‘So this is growing’

Johnson and his staff watched closely as school districts across the state began announcing they would close May 16 due to teachers’ requests to take a personal day to attend the rally. Durham canceled first and was quickly followed by Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

“So this is growing,” Johnson texted his public relations advisers. “Will definitely need a statement for Monday.”

Over several days, the superintendent and his team work-shopped potential comments to send to the media. Johnson’s first draft, which included a reference to “partisan tactics,” was soon shortened and softened.

Drew Elliot, communications director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, was one of three advisers helping Johnson craft a statement and work on messaging about the rally. The superintendent also sought help from Graham Wilson, his community outreach coordinator, and Jonathan Felts, who chaired his transition committee after the election and occasionally helps with political messaging on a volunteer basis.

“We didn’t quite know what [the May 16 event] was going be,” Elliot said, explaining why it took several days for the superintendent to put out a statement. “When you have an elected official who’s a Council of State member, his words carry weight. So he doesn’t like to just come off as uninformed or flippant about things.”

The superintendent couldn’t delay responding much longer. Reporters gathered at an event in Winston-Salem on May 7, where Johnson was announcing a new literacy initiative, were the first to question him publicly about the teacher rally.

“I do not plan to attend a protest on a school day,” Johnson said, explaining that he “absolutely” supports teachers but that the protest would affect others, including school workers and parents.

After the event, he texted his advisers to let them know the press conference went “fine.” He assured them that he stuck to his talking points about the rally, but said he expected some “protestors against me now.” There were no prepared, written talking points, his spokesman later explained: “I think he just meant that he didn’t get off on some tangent with a reporter.”

Commentary, Defending Democracy

Former GOP Supreme Court Justice: NC should reject voter ID requirement

Bob Orr

Bob Orr, a former state Supreme Court justice and one-time candidate for the Republican nomination for governor penned an important op-ed in the Charlotte Observer yesterday entitled “I’ve changed my mind on voter ID.” In it, Orr cites the recent excellent biography of President Ulysses Grant by historian Ron Chernow that describes Grant’s tireless and ultimately frustrated efforts to rein in the voter suppression efforts of the KKK and other racist white southerners in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Having plowed through Chernow’s tome myself in recent months, I can confirm that it is an important read for those who wish to gain a better understanding of some critical aspects of our nation’s history, including the attitudes of many modern Americans — particularly Americans of color — as they confront modern voting law changes that echo the actions Grant combated.

As Orr notes in conclusion:

“What does any of this have to do with voter ID? The latter part of Grant’s career as president overlapped with Reconstruction of the South, the new freedom of the slaves and the granting of rights to them, particularly the right to vote. For those of us who grew up in the South and are of a certain generation, the history books told us that Reconstruction was all about carpetbaggers from the North, traitorous Southerners (or ‘Scalawags’) and freed blacks all taking advantage of those poor white home folks below the Mason-Dixon line. Nobody told us of the extreme violence and intimidation aimed at those newly freed black slaves.

Chernow points out that while ex-Confederates were resentful over losing the war and their ‘property’ in the form of slaves, the real stick in their craw was that blacks now had the right to vote. That voting power enabled blacks to hold office and exercise their electoral power. The book traces the horror and violence that descended upon blacks in the South attempting to participate in the most basic of democratic institutions – the right to vote. In 1868, more than 2,000 blacks were killed in Georgia alone in efforts to suppress voting.

Over time, despite federal efforts against the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists, the burning, lynching and terror resulted in a significantly reduced willingness by blacks to try to vote. Fast forward to the beginning of the 20th century, and here in North Carolina and across the South, a new wave of repression took root. Jim Crow laws became the order of the day.

Not until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did the fruits of the 15th Amendment begin to seriously be fulfilled for black voters in the South. Is it any wonder then that our fellow citizens of African-American heritage are particularly sensitive when it comes to voting issues? Is it any wonder that they are genuinely concerned that a voter ID requirement is just one more in a long line of measures to limit their right to vote?

Maybe a photo voter ID isn’t all that bad, but I’m willing to say today after reading Chernow’s ‘Grant’: Let’s put this proposal on the shelf as simply the right thing to do.”

Commentary, Defending Democracy, News

Breaking: Republicans unveil last minute bill to limit early voting

Surprise! The destructive, last minute mischief and mayhem continue at the Legislative Building. The latest development: Republicans unveiled a new bill out of nowhere late last night to limit early voting in North Carolina. The proposal would come as a proposed amendment to an old bill from last year — what’s referred to in legislative parlance as a “proposed committee substitute” or “PCS.” Former legislative staffer and elections law expert Gerry Cohen summarized the measure in a series of tweets earlier this morning. Here are a few:

Policy Watch will provide further updates as the day goes on.