Get-out-the-Vote groups to court: Absentee ballot restrictions after 9th district scandal went too far

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A new voting rights lawsuit was filed yesterday, this time in an effort to roll back the North Carolina General Assembly’s restrictions on the absentee voting process after a coordinated, illegal ballot scheme was uncovered in the 9th Congressional district last year.

Lawmakers passed a number of election reform measures in Senate Bill 683 in response to the voter fraud scheme perpetrated by Republican operatives, which invalidated the 2018 election in the 9th district. The lawsuit alleges the part of the law that limits who can help an absentee voter fill out their ballots and return them unfairly penalizes those who need assistance.

The lawsuit was filed by the Right to Vote Foundation, a nonprofit that makes grants to support voting rights litigation, and Advance Carolina, a Black-led nonprofit organization with a mission to build political and economic power in Black communities and institutions in North Carolina.

They argue in the suit that the new law infringes on Advance Carolina’s political speech by inhibiting its constitutionally protected right to encourage absentee voting and unfairly penalizes the African-American communities that the organization primarily serves. Before the law passed, third-party groups like Advance Carolina were able to assist voters with absentee ballot applications in support of their get-out-the-vote efforts among African-American voters, older voters and those living in rural communities.

“This law is unconstitutional and blocks North Carolina groups and voters from participating in their civic duty and must be struck down,” said Right to Vote General Counsel Marc Elias. “We will not allow Republican voter fraud to keep North Carolinians from exercising their right to vote.”

McCrae Dowless, a Republican political operative working for U.S. Congressional candidate Mark Harris paid people to help him collect, fill out and turn in absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties leading up to 2018’s midterm election. Evidence about the scheme was unveiled at a State Board of Elections hearing a little over a year ago.

Elias, at the hearing, represented 9th Congressional Democratic candidate Dan McCready. He previously was Hillary Clinton’s attorney during the 2016 presidential election.

The 19-page lawsuit filed in Wake County Superior Court states that SB 683 infringes on the core political speech and association activities of organizations and citizens working to increase voter turnout.

“‘Get-out-the-vote’ (or ‘GOTV’) efforts play an important role — particularly in North Carolina, which ranks in the bottom half of states in voter turnout as a percentage of registration — in ensuring that eligible citizens are able to exercise their right to vote and that elections fairly and truthfully ascertain the will of the people,” the document states.

SB 683 passed the General Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support; the vote was 111-1 in the House and 49-0 in the Senate. The measure, though, also restored early voting on the last Saturday before Election Day and extended some early voting hours.

Marcus Bass, Executive Director of Advance Carolina, said he believes voters are being blamed and subsequently harmed by measures that miss the root of the cause of ballot theft in the 9th Congressional district.

“In our work across North Carolina, we have seen these changes create confusion and further impediments to our already fragile democracy,” he said.

The lawsuit asks the court to permanently enjoin the law restricting absentee ballot assistance.

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