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VoteWhat were state GOP lawmakers’ intentions when they enacted House Bill 589, one of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation?

That’s the question the groups challenging the law want answered by legislators they served with subpoenas last December, asking for emails, letters, reports and other records used when pushing for voting law changes in 2013.

Plenty has transpired since then. The voting cases pending in Winston-Salem ran through the federal courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of a stay of the new law’s provisions, pending the November elections.

Now though the court and the parties are digging in as a mid-summer 2015 trial date looms.

And in an order issued yesterday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joi E. Peake told state lawmakers they could no longer hide behind a claim of legislative privilege and withhold certain categories of communications relevant to the claims asserted in the pending cases.

Among the documents sought are lawmakers’ communications with constituents, state agencies, lobbyists and political organizations regarding the reasons for voting law changes; studies and reports on voter fraud, race and ethnicity of voters; and analyses of costs associated with administering the new provisions.

State lawmakers’ files may be one of the few sources of proof for plaintiffs hoping to establish that those legislators had a discriminatory purpose in enacting House Bill 589 – a critical element in proving certain of plaintiffs’ constitutional claims and in obtaining future preclearance relief under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act.

In her ruling, Peake held that communications between legislators and third parties regarding House Bill 589 are not privileged and must be disclosed. “Third parties” would include any person or group beyond lawmakers and their staff — constituents, state agencies, lobbyists and political organizations, for example.

Peake also ruled that communications between lawmakers and outside counsel before the lawsuits were filed on August 12, 2013  are not automatically privileged and may also be subject to disclosure. The state defendants must provide a log of any such communications being withheld as privileged, with sufficient detail  for the parties and the court to assess whether they can be withheld or should be produced.

Communications between lawmakers and staff, however, remain privileged and need not be identified on a log or otherwise disclosed.

The state defendants still have the option of objecting to Peake’s order and asking for a review by the judge handling the cases, U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder.

If that happens, it may be January before documents start arriving, according to Allison Riggs, an attorney from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice representing groups challenging the law.

“We’re pleased with the ruling,” Riggs said. “We’re eager to get this relevant discovery and build the case for trial next summer. The state needs to comply with the order and produce this discovery quickly.”

For more background on the dispute over documents in the voting cases, read here.

Read Judge Peake’s order here.

News

vote2Three posts this morning about the ongoing war on voters are worth your while, starting with yesterday’s opinion from Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens, ordering the state Board of Elections to reconfigure the voting plan out in Watauga County to locate a polling place at Appalachian State.  It’s a short opinion that packs a powerful punch and, as Justin Levitt notes here at the Election Law Blog, reminds us that “even as the war over North Carolina’s new statewide law rages on, [we shouldn’t] ignore the battles over implementation”:

The majority plan of the Watauga County Board of Elections on its face appears to have as a major purpose the elimination of an early voting site on the ASU  campus. Based on this record, the court can conclude no other intent from that board’s decision other than to discourage student voting. A decision based on that intent is a significant infringement of students’ rights to vote and rises to the level of a constitutional violation of the right to vote.

The early voting plan submitted by the majority members of the Watauga County Board of Elections was arbitrary and capricious. All the credible evidence indicates that the sole purpose of that plan was to eliminate an early voting site on campus so as to discourage student voting and, as such, it is unconstitutional.

Alec MacGillis has this post at the New Republic, listing these reasons why Republicans should surrender the fight over suppressing the vote:

1. The voting wars are a costly, bureaucratic nightmare.

2. The absence of voter fraud is becoming impossible to deny.

3. The GOP’s voter suppression efforts are motivating Democrats.

4. Rand Paul says so.

And Philip Bump addresses the myth of in-person voter fraud in this Washington Post blog, reiterating how such fraud, to the extent it exists at all, is found with absentee ballots — the one area free from voter ID restrictions.

Says Bump:

Almost no one shows up at the polls pretending to be someone else in an effort to throw an election. Almost no one acts as a poll worker on Election Day to try to cast illegal votes for a candidate. And almost no general election race in recent history has been close enough to have been thrown by the largest example of in-person voter fraud on record [24 voters in Brooklyn].

 

News

Voter IDSaying that the right to vote is fundamental, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today ordered the federal district court in Greensboro to stay provisions of the state’s recently enacted voting changes which eliminated same-day registration and prohibited the counting of out-of-precinct provisional ballots.

In a  2-1 decision joined by U.S. Judge Henry Floyd, U.S. District Judge James A. Wynn, Jr. wrote:

Courts routinely deem restrictions on fundamental voting rights irreparable injury.And discriminatory voting procedures in particular are “the kind of serious violation of  the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act for which courts have granted immediate relief.” This makes sense generally and here specifically because whether the number is thirty or thirty-thousand, surely some North Carolina minority voters will be disproportionately adversely affected in the upcoming election. And once the election occurs, there can be no do-over and no redress. The injury to these voters is real and completely irreparable if nothing is done to enjoin this law.

So ruling, the court left intact other provisions of the so-called “monster voting law,” including these: the reduction of early-voting days; the expansion of allowable voter challengers; the elimination of the discretion of county boards of elections to keep the polls open an additional hour on Election Day in “extraordinary circumstances”; the elimination of pre-registration of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who will not be eighteen years old by the next general election; and the soft roll-out of voter identification requirements that go into effect in 2016. The judges said that plaintiffs may prevail on these claims later, but did not make enough of a showing to get a preliminary injunction.

Critical to the majority’s decision was the finding that the state’s elimination of same-day registration and its prohibition against counting out-of-precinct ballots likely violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act:

Everyone in this case agrees that Section 2 has routinely been used to address vote dilution—which basically allows all voters to ‘sing’ but forces certain groups to do so pianissimo. Vote denial is simply a more extreme form of the same pernicious violation—those groups are not simply made to sing quietly; instead their voices are silenced completely. A fortiori, then, Section 2 must support vote-denial claims.

The court then pointed to undisputed evidence showing that “same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting were enacted to increase voter participation, that African American voters disproportionately used those electoral mechanisms, and that House Bill 589 restricted those mechanisms and thus disproportionately impacts African American voters.”

U.S. District Judge Diana Gribbon Motz issued a dissenting opinion, noting that while she was troubled by portions of the lower court’s ruling she did not believe that ruling met the “clearly erroneous” standard needed for reversal.  Motz also agreed with the state that changes to current voting law should not be made this close to the election.

Attorneys for the challengers praised the court’s decision to block key parts of the new voting law.

“The court’s order safeguards the vote for tens of thousands of North Carolinians,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “It means they will continue to be able to use same-day registration, just as they have during the last three federal elections.”

“This is a victory for voters in the state of North Carolina,” Southern Coalition for Social Justice staff attorney Allison Riggs added. “The court has rebuked attempts to undermine voter participation.”

But Senate President Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis, while pleased with the court’s refusal to block several provisions of law, said they were troubled by the ruling on same-day registration and out-of-precinct balloting. “We intend to appeal this decision as quickly as possible to the Supreme Court,” they said in a statement.

Read the full decision here.

 

Commentary
Photo: thinkprogress.org

Photo: www.thinkprogress.org

If you need something to bolster your resolve to keep battling for justice this afternoon, check out this story on the U.K.-based news site, The Guardian about one of the driving forces in the court challenge to North Carolina’s “monster voting law.” The story profiles 93-year-old Rosanell Eaton — an African-American woman and NAACP activist with vivid memories from her younger days of previous efforts by conservative, white politicians to deny her the right to vote.

And then there was the day in 1939 when Rosanell turned 18 and gained the right to vote. She was a vibrant young woman, eager to learn and engage with the world, and determined to have her electoral say at the first chance. But when she arrived at Franklin County courthouse, she was met by three white officials.

“What are you here for, young lady?” one of them asked.

“I’m here to register to vote,” she said.

The men looked at each other, then back at her. “Stand in front of us,” she was instructed. “Look directly at us. Don’t turn your head to the right, nor to the left. Now repeat the preamble to the constitution of the United States.” Read More

Commentary

Phil Berger[This story has been updated — see below] There’s been a lot of confusion about North Carolina’s confusing and complicated “Monster Voting Law” — much of it resulting from the fact many of the law’s numerous changes designed to make voting more difficult go into effect at different times. Of course, when your overall objective is to suppress voter turnout — especially amongst already marginalized groups and individuals — confusion can be a useful tool.

Just ask state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. who’s running TV ads touting his role in passing the voter ID provision that was included in the monster law. As WUNC radio’s Jorge Valencia reports, voting rights advocates at the state NAACP are rightfully steamed over the fact that Berger’s ad implies that the voter ID requirement is already in effect for the November election, even though it actually doesn’t take effect until 2016.

The North Carolina NAACP is calling on state Senate Leader Phil Berger to stop broadcasting an ad about a new voting law. The civil rights organization says the ad is misleading and could keep some from voting.

It’s a political campaign spot airing on TV stations in the Triad. And it gives Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) credit for a 2013 law that changed many rules about voting in North Carolina.

“Now,” the narrator says, “thanks to Phil Berger, voters must show a valid ID to vote.”

Berger himself continues: “Voter ID prevents fraud and protects the integrity of our elections. It’s common sense.”

The NAACP says that is a misleading statement. Portions of this new law are in place — such as there no longer being a possibility to register on the same day as the election and the elimination of the option to vote for one party by checking one box. But the ID portion of the bill, which will compel voters to show identification at polling stations, will not be in effect until 2016. Attorney Al McSurely said at a press conference Tuesday that Berger’s ad is confusing.

A “misleading statement” to say the least. How about “an obvious untruth that’s just the latest wrinkle in the ongoing effort to suppress voter turnout amongst voters worried about long lines and getting hassled at the polls”?

Click here to read the WUNC story and listen to the ad.

UPDATE: Though apparently denying it was in response to the NAACP complaint, Senator Berger has now amended the ad in question to make clear that the voter ID requirement does not go into effect until 2016. Raleigh’s News & Observer has the story here.