Commentary

Editorial: Voter ID still a lousy idea

In case you missed it, be sure to check out the latest editorial in the Winston-Salem Journal regarding the General Assembly’s new voter ID scheme. This is from “Voter ID is still a bad idea”:

Legislative leaders say that the purpose of passing the bill is to restore confidence in elections and prevent voter fraud.

Of course, one of the main reasons voters lack confidence in elections is because Republicans keep telling them that voter fraud is a big problem in the state.

But the claim has been refuted time and time again, including by Republican authorities like Kim Strach, the executive director of the State Board of Elections. It does occur from time to time, but no evidence has ever been produced to prove that the problem is widespread or significant.

In 2013, Republicans tried to push through a voter-ID bill, only to have the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals determine that the bill was intended to suppress voting by African Americans, who generally go heavily for Democrats, and that it targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.”

“The State has failed to produce one individual who has ever been charged with committing in-person voter fraud in North Carolina,” the Fourth Circuit Court said in its ruling.

Republicans spent more than $9 million of taxpayer money trying to push the bill through the courts, only to finally have the U.S. Supreme Court tell them to knock it off.

Republicans were so desperate to push their conspiracy theory in the last election that they accused voters in 52 counties of double voting and other misdeeds. Four of those voters are currently suing their accusers for slander and libel.

We do have voting problems in this state — voter suppression and Russian attempts to interfere in our elections. The state legislature has done nothing about those. Instead, they’re following their partisan pattern of trying to retain power at the expense of fair elections. It’s past time to let this zombie die.

Amen to that.

agriculture, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, Legislature, News, public health

The week’s Top Five on Policy Watch

1. A moment of extreme danger for NC public schools

There have been a lot of regressive education policies that have emanated from the North Carolina General Assembly in recent decades. Even prior to the Republican takeover that commenced in 2011, many Democratic leaders had already embraced the flawed conservative idea that our schools and students were struggling in many places because they were too “soft” and lacked sufficient “competition.” Hence, the early-century moves to introduce charter schools, dramatically expand the number of high-stakes, standardized tests and limit so-called “social promotions.”

In the last seven-plus years of GOP rule, the relative trickle of conservative education schemes has turned into a flood. Lawmakers have slashed funding, dramatically expanded charters (including for-profit, virtual charters), introduced private school vouchers, “education savings accounts,” “performance-based pay,” and state-initiated conversions of struggling schools to charter schools, and talked openly and repeatedly of privatizing what has long been understood to be a core function of government.

As unhelpful as each of these developments has been, however, they may well end up paling in comparison to the new and dangerous two-part change that’s currently making its way into law during the current legislative session.

At issue is the enormously controversial and dangerous plan to fundamentally alter the way North Carolina funds public schools by allowing individual cities to get into the business of running and funding public schools. Under the plan approved by the Senate last week, four wealthy suburbs of Charlotte that are angry with the administration of the county school system would be granted authority to fund their own charter schools and give priority admission to their towns’ students.

The plan is so radical and potentially game-changing that it actually drew negative votes from five Senate Republicans last week – something that almost never happens in that intensely partisan body – and is now attracting national attention. [Read more…]

2. In surprise revision to school safety bill, Senate Republicans seek insurance overhaul that may threaten NC’s Affordable Care Act marketplace

3. State lawmakers moving suddenly and swiftly to shut down nuisance suits against industrial hog farms

4. “Piecemeal” judicial redistricting: Lawmakers pushing a trio of bills that would impact a third of state’s residents

5. Amid anti-LGBTQ violence, NC Democrats seek expansion of state hate crimes law

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, News

Board of Education, Superintendent both claim wins in NC Supreme Court ruling

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the comments of the State Board of Education.

Lawmakers did not violate the constitution when they transferred power from the State Board of Education to newly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mark Johnson, according to the State Supreme Court.

A unanimous opinion was released Friday, which officially puts Johnson in charge of the $10 billion public school system. Chief Justice Mark Martin did not hear the case after previously recusing himself.

Attorneys for the Board of Education had argued that lawmakers, in crafting House Bill 17, encroached on the Board’s constitutional authority by copying and pasting its powers and duties and transferring them to Johnson.

They said lawmakers could not give or reallocate constitutional duties and that the Board’s core constitutional power was to supervise, make rules and administer funds.

Johnson’s attorneys argued that the General Assembly had authority to transfer power because of the constitutional language that the Board’s power is “subject to laws enacted by the General Assembly.”

The high court’s decision that HB717 did not encroach on the Board’s constitutional authority was in part because of “the existence of numerous statutory provisions subjecting the Superintendent’s authority to appropriate rules and regulations adopted by the Board.”

Attorneys for the Board, Bob Orr and Drew Erteschik viewed the Supreme Court opinion as a win.

“We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision, which reaffirms that the State Board of Education — and not the Superintendent of Public Instruction — has the ultimate authority under the Constitution to supervise and administer the state’s public school system,” they said. “We are also pleased that, while the Court stopped short of invalidating this particular legislation on its face, the Court unanimously declared that the Board has the final say on ‘the mechanics of the relationship between the Board and the Superintendent, as well as how their respective departments will operate internally.’ Beyond those initial observations, we are continuing to study the Court’s decision.”

Johnson also viewed the opinion as a win. He said in an emailed statement that the Supreme Court’s opinion “validates the common-sense proposition that the duly-elected Superintendent of Public Instruction should lead the Department of Public Instruction.”

“I am looking forward to putting this lawsuit behind us and working with board members to strengthen public education in North Carolina,” he stated. “While it is unfortunate that it took more than a year and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to resolve this matter, the positive news is that we will be able to utilize the data-driven analysis to reorganize DPI to help the agency focus on its core mission of supporting educators, students, and parents across North Carolina.”

You can read the full opinion below.

NC Supreme Court Opinion Board of Edu by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Commentary, Environment

Environmental advocates: We’ve had it up to here (literally) with polluting polystyrene

In case you missed it earlier this week amidst all the hubbub at the General Assembly, the good people at the advocacy group Environment North Carolina launched an important new anti-pollution campaign against one of the most ubiquitous and destructive byproducts of our modern, supersized, fast food-obsessed lives. This is from the announcement that accompanied the group’s Wednesday press event near a polluted Durham creek:

Some of the plastic waste recently cleaned from Durham’s Ellerbee Creek

Environment North Carolina’s New Campaign: Wildlife Over Waste
The Campaign Aims to Bolster Local Efforts and Ban Harmful Plastic Pollution, Starting With Polystyrene.

Plastic pollution is killing our wildlife. That’s why Environment North Carolina is announcing a new campaign and working with local partners to ban harmful types of single-use plastic food containers in North Carolina.

Polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, is one of the worst and most common types of plastic. Americans throw out 70 million polystyrene foam cups every day, and that doesn’t include bowls and takeout containers. Roughly a third of that discarded plastic ends up in our waterways: rivers, lakes, and especially oceans.

“Polystyrene foam is material we use only once for our food and drink, yet it lasts in our environment forever, causing harm to people, drinking water, and ecosystems. And many cities’ trash is trucked to lower-income counties where landfills are filling fast. Styrofoam is a pollutant to North Carolina, and this state-wide ban represents a first step to breaking our ‘take-and-trash’ addiction and moving toward a sustainable reuse economy. ” said Crystal Dreisbach, Co-CEO of GreenToGo, and Executive Director of Don’t Waste Durham. Read more

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Will there be a late judicial primary? Federal judge to decide if elimination violated Constitution

With a little over a week to go before filing for office, judges are left in limbo as a federal court considers whether lawmakers’ cancellation of judicial primaries this year disenfranchised the North Carolina Democratic Party and its voters.

If U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles does find a constitutional violation stemming from Senate Bill 656, or the Electoral Freedom Act, “the only remedy is a primary,” which would likely be scheduled for later this year. The primary election for other races was held in May. Candidate filing for judicial seats runs from June 18-29.

“June 29 is a very important cutoff date,” said James Bernier, special deputy attorney general, who represents the state and State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

He added that things become “risky” after that point, but didn’t expound. Eagles, who did not rule from the bench after a trial Thursday or give any indication of who her finding might favor, was skeptical since Bernier and an attorney for the General Assembly explicitly agreed in a previous hearing that there would be plenty of time for a late primary after trial if necessary.

“There’s a changing landscape here with judicial redistricting,” Bernier explained.

After opposing counsel pointed out that a redistricting bill had been passed and sent to the Governor as late as Monday night (SB 757, which redistricts Wake and Mecklenburg counties), Eagles said there was justification for her cynicism.

“Oh, just Monday,” she asked. “Just in time.”

Judicial redistricting and merit selection are two of three justifications Martin Warf, the attorney representing lawmakers, gave for lawmakers cancelling judicial primary elections this year. The third was that they were treating statewide and local judges the same — despite judicial redistricting only affecting trial court judges.

State Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin testified that they had to modify internal operations and create an endorsement panel for statewide judicial races (which required time and money) — there is one seat on the state Supreme Court and three on the Court of Appeals up for election this year. The panel is expected to meet this weekend.

The party doesn’t have the time or resources to endorse for the 150 or so trial court judicial elections, although Wake County Democratic Party Chair Rebecca Llewellyn testified some counties were considering creating endorsement panels.

Goodwin said that the creation of an endorsement panel forced the party to reallocate power from the people to the executives; it went from a bottom-up organization to a top-down one. Primary elections, he said, were the voters voice and mechanism for choosing a “standard bearer,” or public representative of the Democratic Party.

Goodwin also testified that the other part of SB656 that was causing a “severe burden” on the Democratic Party is a provision that allows judicial candidates to change their party affiliation up until the time of filing. There was previously a requirement that they had to be registered with a political party for at least 90 days to file as a candidate of that party.

“If this were not a partisan general election [for judges], we’d be in a different situation,” he said.

Lawmakers made all judicial elections partisan again in two separate bills in 2016 and 2017. Edwin Speas, an attorney for the Democratic Party, said during his closing arguments that they could not find any other legislature in the nation that eliminated judicial primaries in a partisan election.

Speas outlined the burdens that were imposed on the Democratic Party, contended there were alternative ways the General Assembly could achieved their end goal without eliminating the primaries and said they didn’t have a legitimate and neutral justification.

“This is a classic case of hurried, not carefully considered, not thoughtful legislative enactment,” he said.

Warf said the plaintiffs in the case had a high burden of proof that they didn’t meet and that laws passed by the General Assembly were presumed constitutional.

“If there is a burden, then it is minor,” he said. “Do the justifications hold up? We think so.”

He contended that the Democratic Party has the ability to choose their candidates in other ways than a primary election.

John Wallace, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said it is the collection of burdens on the Democratic Party that amount to a First Amendment constitutional violation of association rights, not any one burden on its own.

He also pointed out that any judicial candidate the Democratic Party endorsed without a primary election would not be indicated on the general election ballot, so there was no real meaningful way to communicate with voters.

Eagles took all arguments under advisement but said she was sensitive to the time constraints in the case and would have a ruling as soon as possible.