State Board of Education welcomes student voices after three year absence

Student representation returned to the State Board of Education this month after missing for three years due to political infighting between the board and State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

New high school advisers, Meredith Gaskill, a Carson High School senior from Rowan-Salisbury Public Schools and Nate Kolk-Tomberlin, a junior from Apex High School in Wake County, were introduced during the board’s Sept. 5 business meeting.

Meredith Gaskill

“I believe that I can bring a fair and balanced view of my peers to the board as well as offer the board a wide variety of student opinion,” Kolk-Tomberlin told the board.

Gaskill said she was excited to be a part of the board and the “opportunity to learn and contribute.”

North Carolina law authorized the governor to appointment two high school students to serve as advisers to the state board, but the Republican-led General Assembly handed the authority to the state superintendent in a power grab that led to a lengthy legal battle.

Nate Kolk-Tomberlin

The legal wrangling ended with the State Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of House Bill 17, which rearranged the responsibilities of the superintendent and transferred certain powers of the state board to Johnson as well as the authority to appoint student advisers to the board.

Johnson said in April that he couldn’t appoint students to the board until after the legal questions around HB 17 were answered.

“That entire law was put on hold for a year and a half because of lawsuits, so nobody could appoint a student adviser,” Johnson said in April. “When the court proceedings were finally finished in summer of 2018, that is when it took the restraining order off of that law and I had the ability to appoint a student adviser.”

Two high students — Greear Webb and Myles Cyrus – nudged Johnson in April with compelling arguments for bringing student advisers back to the board.

“If we are in the room where the decisions are made, we can clearly and intentionally help you to structure our education in the most effective and successful way possible,” said Webb, a Sanderson High School graduate who now attends UNC-Chapel Hill.

Cyrus is a 2019 graduate of Fike High School in Wilson. He now attends Wake Forest University.

Defending Democracy, News

Public comments on proposed remedial maps split — some approve, some vehemently oppose

Lawmakers heard public comment Monday on proposed remedial maps after being taken to task by a local court for partisan gerrymandering. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Members of the North Carolina public were finally able to weigh in Monday on proposed remedial legislative maps that would be used in the 2020 elections.

The House and Senate Redistricting committees held a joint hearing this afternoon to allow for public comment before the final maps are enacted and sent to the court that ordered them. A three-judge panel ruled lawmakers redraw districts after they used unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering to redistrict maps in 2017.

The new maps are due to be submitted to the court by 5 p.m. Friday. The House took a floor vote on its proposed maps Friday, but they still could be amended. The Senate plans to hold a floor vote on its remedial maps this evening.

Public comments were mostly split — numerous people commended the legislature for finally using a transparent process to shed some light on the redistricting process, but several more people scolded them for continuing to prioritize incumbency protection and not implementing transparency to the highest degree.

“I am here to mourn the passing of public trust in this legislature,” said Jennifer Rudoph, of Wake County. “It’s dead. It died years ago. … Now the only way to revitalize our trust is for you to step aside and let the courts draw fair maps.”

She was not alone in calling for the courts to step in. The Rev. Dr. Earl Johnson, clergy and pastor of Greater Grace Christian Church, a predominately African-American church in Youngsville, and Bishop Todd Fulton, of the Ministers’ Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity, both spoke about the need for districts that don’t target or split their votes.

“This process divides the African-American community,” said Fulton. “On the final analysis, we will not allow our taxpayer dollars to be used for partisan gerrymandering.”

Johnson said he sees no distinction between partisan and racial gerrymandering and that the process of gerrymandering hasn’t changed over the past week.

“Already I’m a little frustrated that you’ve declined to draw districts from scratch,” he said. “It is totally illegitimate. The people of North Carolina deserve clean and fair elections. This is not a fair process.”

A number of people spoke about their disappointment with specific county clusters and districts, including in Alamance, Mecklenburg, Davie and Cabarrus counties.

On the other hand though, there were several speakers who approved of the process and said they liked the proposed maps. They also criticized calls for a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

“I’m sorry, I don’t believe in unicorns, I don’t believe in Easter bunnies, and I don’t believe in nonpartisan commissions,” said Jay DeLancy, founder of the conservative Voter Integrity Project.

Veronica Martish, of Willow Spring, told the committees the “judicial gerryrigging” has got to stop.

“I urge you to resist those calls because elections have consequences,” she said. “Don’t betray your party voters by surrendering your cause for a redistricting commission.”

Renee Miller, of Cary, said she finds herself at a loss — the Republicans were elected in 2010 on Democrat-drawn maps and the rules have been the same for all of them.

“Why are we having to go through this?” she asked.

She added that the time and resources spent on this remedial redistricting process were a waste.

The court has appointed Stanford Law Professor Nathaniel Persily to help review the remedial map the legislature enacts. He could be ordered to draw new maps if the court does not approve.


UNC-Chapel Hill students believe they’ve found current location of “Silent Sam”

Last month, UNC-Chapel Hill students and community members celebrated the one year anniversary of the toppling of “Silent Sam” — the controversial Confederate monument that stood on campus for more than a century.

This weekend the school’s daily newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, reported that student journalists may have found where the university has been storing the damaged statue and its base.

A large crowd rallies at the Silent Sam Confederate monument on UNC’s campus in 2017 as student Michelle Brown speaks. (Photo by Joe Killian)

University officials wouldn’t confirm the location, but campus police are guarding the outdoor storage yard off of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Chapel Hill. Photos taken at the site seem to match the statue’s base.

The monument, erected in 1913 as part of a what historians call a new wave of white supremacist sentiment, was torn down by protesters after decades of controversy and attempts to legally secure its removal. Its damaged remains have been kept by the school in what officials say is an undisclosed but secure location as its return to campus has become increasingly unlikely.

Conflicts over the toppling of the statue and how to respond played into deep tensions with the UNC Board of Governors that led to the resignations of both former UNC System President Margaret Spellings and former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt.

The men who replaced them — Dr. Bill Roper as interim UNC System President and Kevin Gusciewicz as interim chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill — have both gone on record saying the statue should not return to the campus.

With UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith reversing position to oppose the statue’s return, there is no longer even a timeline for any decision on the monument’s future.

As Policy Watch reported last month, UNC-Chapel Hill trustees have recently said they are open to revisiting the idea of renaming buildings on campus named for white supremacists and enslavers.


National Women’s Law Center demands congressional investigation of Kavanaugh in light of new evidence

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh speaking at his 2018 confirmation hearing.

This past Saturday, the New York Times reported on more allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his days as a college student at Yale. The story has spurred many demands for a new and thorough investigation and calls for Kavanaugh’s impeachment.

The following statement was issued this morning by Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center:

A year ago, the National Women’s Law Center, along with a broad chorus of organizations and concerned citizens, called for a full Senate investigation of Brett Kavanaugh. Today, a New York Times op-ed reveals that their own investigation has uncovered a previously unreported allegation against Justice Brett Kavanaugh and identified several of his Yale classmates who have information that corroborates some of the sexual misconduct allegations against him. One former classmate tried desperately to alert the FBI about his own knowledge of Kavanaugh’s misconduct in the days before the final vote. But he never heard back from the FBI. After Christine Blasey Ford’s credible testimony—along with separate allegations of sexual misconduct by additional women—the Republican-led Senate orchestrated a sham investigation that intentionally ignored evidence and crucial leads in order to rush the confirmation of Kavanaugh to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. This is a disgrace. The public was denied a full accounting. The institution of the Supreme Court was denied a full accounting.  Now, a year later, Congress must finally get this right and conduct a full and thorough investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct against Brett Kavanaugh.


NC featured in new national report on polling site closures, voter suppression

As state lawmakers debate the issue of gerrymandering and electoral maps, researchers at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights are out with a new and powerful report about voter suppression in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which swept away key elements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The new report is entitled “Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote” (download a PDF version by clicking here) and it documents how a group of states — mostly in the South and including North Carolina — have closed large numbers of polling places in ways that disenfranchise voters of color.

This is from the report, which documents poll closures in hundreds of counties in recent years:

The national media have focused on discriminatory changes in voting policy and practice, such as the increase in photo identification requirements, purges from voting rolls, and reductions in rates of early voting. Yet poll closures have received little attention, even though they are a common and particularly pernicious way to disenfranchise voters of color. Decisions to shutter or reduce voting locations are often made quietly and at the last minute, making pre-election intervention or litigation virtually impossible. Closing polling places has a cascading effect, leading to long lines at other polling places, transportation hurdles, denial of language assistance and other forms of in-person help, and mass confusion about where eligible voters may cast their ballot. For many people, and particularly for voters of color, older voters, rural voters, and voters with disabilities, these burdens make it harder — and sometimes impossible — to vote.

And this is from the section on North Carolina:

Voters in North Carolina, where more than one-fifth (21 percent) of the population is African American, also have less access to polling stations. The 40 counties once covered by Section 5 of the VRA now have 29 fewer voting locations than they had before Shelby. The vast majority of these reductions occurred under the proverbial cover of darkness — without any notice or reporting from the news media. They are especially concerning because majority-White counties voted to shutter voting locations with significant Black populations over the vocal objections of local civil rights groups. The Pasquotank County Board of Elections, for example, shuttered half of the polling places in Elizabeth City — a majority-Black community — without public input and over the objections of the local NAACP branch. The consolidation was undertaken in 2015 in the name of saving money, yet no polling places were eliminated in other parts of the county.

While the situation in North Carolina is not as egregious as the ones in Texas, Georgia or Arizona, it’s clearly part of a broad and disturbing pattern that, the report argues convincingly, merits close scrutiny.

While all poll closures do not prove discrimination, they merit heightened scrutiny, given this country’s sordid history of excluding voters of color from the political process. Context matters. There may be legitimate reasons to reduce the number of polling places, perhaps because of a population decrease or reduced demand for Election Day voting because of increases in early or mail-in voting. When polling place reductions are planned in concert with diverse communities, evaluated in advance to ensure they won’t harm voters of color, and take place with clear notice and transparency, they can be implemented equitably. Before Shelby, states and localities with clear records of voter discrimination — like those discussed in this report — were required to take these steps when consolidating polling places. Today, they are not.

Let’s hope the report spurs renewed attention on this important and frequently overlooked issue. Click here to explore the report.