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Crowd outside the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem

Crowd outside the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem

The battle over sweeping election law changes adopted in North Carolina in 2013 opened on two fronts yesterday.

In a packed courtroom inside the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem, attorneys for both the challengers and the state laid out the case they planned to present to U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder over the next several weeks.

State lawmakers knew exactly what they were doing when they stripped away same day registration, cut early voting days and eliminated the counting of out-of-precinct provisional ballots — provisions used widely by minority voters — Penda D. Hair, an attorney for the North Carolina NAACP, said in her opening statement.

“They were voter suppressors in search of a pretext,” she told the judge.

The state has argued throughout the case that the 2013 changes were neutral on their face, burdening all voters – not just African-American or Latino voters – and that the state’s election laws now resembled those in other states, where same day registration and early voting don’t exist.

But Hair dismissed that argument, saying that other states do not have the same racially-charged history of voter suppression as does North Carolina.

“Poll taxes were neutral on their face,” Hair said. “Literacy tests were neutral on their face. The law teaches it is the impact that matters – an impact that is linked to social and historical conditions – not whether a law explicitly says African Americans or Latinos are not allowed to vote.”

Outside, the trial over the voting changes in the court of public opinion also waged on.

Speakers from the state NAACP held an early morning press conference while their supporters and others from voting rights advocacy groups chanted what’s become the mantra for the Moral Monday movement: “Forward together! Not one step back.”

Ricky Diaz for the NCGOP

Ricky Diaz for the NCGOP

In the opposite corner behind a podium bearing the NCGOP logo, state Republican Party spokesman Ricky Diaz told the media that the election law changes were simply common sense provisions meant to ensure the integrity of the vote.

The parties have identified nearly 100 voters, experts and state officials as possible witnesses in the case, and once opening arguments ended, the challengers began calling them to the stand.

Durham resident Gwendolyn Farrington told the court that she tried to vote near her 6 a.m.-to-6 p.m. job, since she couldn’t get to her own precinct, but was told that she had to cast a provisional ballot — which she later learned would not be counted.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the state NAACP, also took the stand yesterday afternoon in advance of a planned Moral Monday voting rights march held at 5 p.m. in Winston-Salem.

“In North Carolina, a literacy test is still on the books,” Barber said. “The Voting Rights Act overruled it, but it remains there as a symbol.”

“In this country we should be doing everything humanly possible to ensure all people can vote,” he added.

Trial will continue day-to-day at the federal courthouse at 251 N. Main Street, Winston-Salem, and is expected to last at least two weeks.   Read here for more on what to expect during the proceedings.

News

voteNew data put out today by Democracy NC found that voter participation was higher in the state for the 2014 midterm election than it was in 2010. In general, voter turnout increased across the board for most subgroups but the most significant increase came from the group of unaffiliated voters. Of the 250,600 more people who voted in the 2014 election, almost two-thirds were Independents. Among Democrats and Republicans, the changes were slight. Even though more Democratic women came out to vote in 2014, Republican men continued to turnout in higher numbers. Since the percentage of party-affiliated voters didn’t change drastically, it certainly seems that Independent vote had a serious impact on the outcome of the election.

According to Bob Hall, director of Democracy NC, “Thom Tillis gained the edge from independent voters, conservative Democrats and the higher turnout of Republican voters,” while “Senator Kay Hagan benefited from the increased turnout of Democratic women and African Americans.”

The African American vote increased by 1.9 percentage points in the midterm election, which Hall credits to the efforts of groups including, Democracy North Carolina, the NC NAACP, Common Cause, and the League of Women Voters, who mounted yearlong campaigns to educate voters about the new voting rules.

However, Hall notes that, the increases in voter participation, both within subgroups and overall, aren’t necessarily a cause for joy. He explained that no party or group can be proud of an election where more than half the registered voters did not participate. “The loss of same-day registration cut out at least 20,000 voters,” he said, “and the end of straight-party voting and out-of-precinct voting created long lines and enormous problems that pushed away thousands of more people.”

Democracy NC’s full press release can be read here and voter turnout data can be found here.

News

VoteHere’s something North Carolina voters can put on their wish lists for 2015:  voting reforms like those enacted by the Illinois legislature earlier this week that make registration simpler and more reliable, cut election costs in the long run, reduce voter fraud and, most importantly, expand the right and ability to vote.

In just about every way, the Illinois bill is the polar opposite of North Carolina’s House Bill 589, enacted in August 2013 and widely criticized as one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country.

Here are the highlights, as summarized by the Brennan Center’s DeNora Getachew:

The Illinois bill has three major pieces:

  1. It will implement electronic registration, which means more voters will have the opportunity to sign up when they interact with a government agency.
  2. It will create a permanent same-day registration (SDR) system. SDR will increase convenience by allowing citizens to register and vote on the same day, either before or on Election Day.
  3. It will increase early voting options by extending them to include the three days — most notably, the Saturday and Sunday — before Election Day.

Illinois had already adopted online voter registration in 2013, joining 17 other states doing the same — recognizing that it would increase voter participation, particularly among young people, and would reduce registration costs.

“This law will increase participation in our democracy,” State Senator Don Harmon said at the time. “But it will do more than that. It will also save the state money. Processing a paper registration costs 83 cents. Processing an online application costs 3 cents.”

With the new law, Illinois also joins “ERIC” — the Electronic Registration Information Center — which helps states share voter information, making voting rolls more accurate and adapting to the mobility of voters.  Eleven other states and Washington, D.C., had already joined the center.

To see more about how ERIC works, watch below.

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News

EARLYWith early voting drawing to a close on Saturday, the number of people voting in person and taking advantage of the convenience of early voting is approaching 700,000.

Associated Press’ Gary Robertson reports:

State Board of Elections data show nearly 690,000 people had cast ballots from the start of early voting Oct. 23 through Wednesday at centers in all 100 counties. It closes Saturday afternoon.

Democrats have cast 49 percent of early in-person votes this fall, compared to 47 percent in all of early voting in 2010, according to the board data. Republicans comprise 31 percent of this year’s vote and unaffiliated voters are at 20 percent. During 2010, Republicans cast 36 percent and unaffiliateds at 17 percent.

If you’re stumped about what’s on the ballot or who to vote for beyond the race at the top of the ticket, be sure to check out the 2014 North Carolina Voter Guide, where you can see a side-by-side comparison of every  candidate in all 100 counties.

Also take time to listen to our recent radio interview with Brent Laurenz, Executive Director of the nonpartisan North Carolina Center for Voter Education who discusses the voter guide and the future of public financing:

For a list of early voting times and locations, click here. To find your correct polling place for Tuesday, November 4th, click here.

Commentary

Greensboro News & Record editorial writer Doug Clark is on the money with this column praising this week’s Fourth Circuit decision to enjoin two key voter suppression laws enacted by North Carolina’s current political leaders:

The court noted the propriety of applying “the totality of circumstances” to its analysis. In this case, the circumstances included waiting for the Supreme Court to strike down preclearance requirements under the Voting Rights Act last year before the legislature rolled out its bill in all its many parts.

“By inspecting the different parts of House Bill 589 as if they existed in a vacuum, the district court failed to consider the sum of those parts and their cumulative effect on minority access to the ballot box,” Wynn wrote for the court.

Also relevant is the history of racial discrimination in North Carolina’s voting past.

The court drew an obvious conclusion:

“The election laws in North Carolina prior to House Bill 589’s enactment encouraged participation by qualified voters. But the challenged House Bill 589 provisions stripped them away….”

The changes were partisan weapons, no less than gerrymandered redistricting. Why anyone would pretend otherwise is beyond me.

I don’t know how it will come out eventually, but I wish North Carolina would take steps to encourage more voting, not discourage it.

Meanwhile, Raleigh’s News & Observer rightfully takes GOP officials to task for spending large sums of taxpayer dollars to defend their suppression efforts:

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