Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NC NAACP to facilitate absentee voting in hurricane-impacted counties; State Board still assessing impacts

The North Carolina NAACP announced Monday that it would facilitate providing absentee ballot applications to registered voters in Hurricane Florence-impacted counties.

“It is imperative that while our communities struggle to recover from the devastating flooding and other destruction from this storm, citizen’s right to vote should not be impaired,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President of the organization. “The NAACP has long advocated for the right to vote and we know from the experience of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 that flood-impacted areas had depressed voter turnout.”

The counties hit hardest by Hurricane Florence have some of the largest percentages of African-American and Latino populations in the state, according to a news release from the NAACP.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement was conducting preliminary assessments of storm damage Monday, reaching out to all 100 county board of elections directors for updates on conditions on the ground.

“As you probably know, flooding is expected to get worse in some areas before it gets better,” said spokesman Pat Gannon in an email.

State Board Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach also sent a letter Monday to all five political party directors to help address upcoming challenges as a result of the hurricane.

“Our thoughts are with so many affected by Hurricane Florence across our state,” the letter states. “Like you, we are closely monitoring the evolving situation as we work to guarantee the continuity of elections administration through this period of disruption. As party leaders, you are often first to hear of disruptions affecting particular communities. We want to partner with you to address challenges that may impact critical components of election administration and deadlines over the coming weeks.”

Most county boards of elections have been and will continue to send absentee ballots to military and overseas voters who have requested them, according to the State Board. Its office is stepping in to send out ballots for several counties that are unable to do so because their operations are affected by flooding, power and internet outages or inaccessible due to the storm.

“We are assessing emergency options, and our team is committed to assisting county boards and voters in the affected areas,” Strach said.

Lenoir County was one of the hardest hit areas by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and is again facing widespread flooding after Hurricane Florence. It is too early to tell how county voting will be affected from this weather event, but you can read more about how flooding affected early voting there in 2016 here.

The NAACP is planning to try and offset early voting issues by encouraging absentee voting. According to the State Board, any registered North Carolina voter can request an absentee ballot by mail, and no excuse is needed to vote by absentee.

“To request an absentee ballot, complete the North Carolina Absentee Ballot Request Form,” according to the State Board. “The Absentee Ballot Request Form may only be signed by the voter or a voter’s near relative or legal guardian. According to the law, a ‘near relative’ can be any of the following: spouse, sibling, parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, mother-in-law, father-in-law, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, stepparent, or stepchild of the voter. A completed Absentee Ballot Request Form may be scanned and emailed, faxed, or mailed to the county board of elections.”

Anyone not registered to vote at their current address may send in their updated voter registration form along with the absentee ballot application, but that must be done by Friday, October 12 — the last day to register by mail to vote in the November 6 election this year.

Spearman said the absentee ballot campaign is keeping with the organization’s commitment to civic engagement.

The State Board is also reminding voters that they can vote by mail (with no excuse needed); vote early in person from Oct. 17 through Nov. 3; vote on Election Day, November 6. The regular voter registration deadline is 5 p.m. October 12. Eligible individuals may also register during the early voting period.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Unplugged power supply to blame for missing special session audio from House chamber

It took Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble more than a month to mail NC Policy Watch one email from July accounting for missing House chamber audio from the special session in which lawmakers retroactively changed judicial filing rules.

“So, not cut wire,” the email from July 25 states. “A power supply was unplugged that is used for the recording PC and the assistive listening devices — that is how this works.”

The email is referring to a House audio chamber recording of debate from the July 24 special legislative session. NC Policy Watch inquired about the missing audio in early August while working on a story about Senate Bill 3, a measure that retroactively mandated judicial candidates be associated with their preferred political party for at least 90 days prior to filing for office.

Policy Watch was told by legislative staff during an early August phone call that there had been a “glitch” in the system and they may not be able to recover the audio recording. They claimed at the time to not know exactly what happened. The Senate chamber audio, on the other hand, was successfully recorded.

No further details at the time were offered so a public records request was sent Aug. 3 to Coble asking for “all emails, text messages and any and all other documentation or materials to, from and between all legislative staff, legislators and legislative assistants that refers to any audio recording or the a/v system that records audio from the House floor debate on July 24, 2018.”

Policy Watch received a package today from Coble via U.S. Mail with one responsive email on a thumb drive and a letter dated Sept. 12 noting that it cost taxpayers $105.15 to fulfill the request.

The single email dated July 25 — prior to Policy Watch’s phone call — includes an “internal write-up” about the missing audio.

“It appears that a test of the recording computer was done at approximately 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday,” it states. “I do not know if it was listened to. Audio testing of the FTR (For the Record) software had been done on Thursday, July 19, during cabling operations. The power supply must have been knocked [loose] or removed from the plug after this.”

The audio, had it been properly recorded, would have been of the floor debate over SB3. It is now marked “audio incomplete” on the legislative website and is the only date listed this year that wasn’t properly recorded.

Lawmakers appeared to target state Supreme Court candidate Chris Anglin with SB3 — he changed his Democratic voter registration to Republican on June 7 and is challenging Republican incumbent Justice Barbara Jackson and Democratic candidate Anita Earls. The bill, though, affected a total of four judicial candidates, including Anglin.

A court has since issued a preliminary injunction blocking the measure, which means each of the affected candidates will still appear on the ballot with the party they were registered with at the time of filing.

Read the full email from Coble’s response below.

House Audio 07 24 18 by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

State Board of Elections, county boards take precautions ahead of Hurricane Florence

Hurricane Florence is expected to make landfall in North Carolina less than two months before midterm elections and officials are taking precautions ahead of time.

State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement Director Kim Strach sent out a memo Tuesday encouraging county boards of elections to prepare for potential flooding and not to take any chances with voting materials and equipment.

“Many of you were impacted by Hurricane Matthew back in 2016 with severe flooding that limited access to your office or voting sites,” the memo states. “The rainfall amounts anticipated with this storm could be in excess of 15 to 20 inches in some areas. This could result in flooding in places that normally do not flood. For those counties on the coast, the effects of the storm could begin as early as Wednesday so all preparations need to be made as soon as possible.”

Preparations include making sure all voting equipment, electronic equipment, files and other essential items are protected from the storm by moving them to higher ground or securing them in some other secure way.

“It is important for us all to remember that our emergency plans must also maintain the highest security safeguards,” Strach states in the memo.

The memo also addresses a Sept. 22 deadline for absentee ballots to be completed and how everyone will continue to work to complete the ballots. Read the full memo below:

Numbered Memo 2018-11 by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Prisoners, DPS staff in projected Hurricane Florence path being moved to safety

Several hundred prisoners and N.C. Department of Public Safety staff who are in the projected path of Hurricane Florence are being moved to safer facilities.

DPS prison spokesman Jerry Higgins said Tuesday that he couldn’t give specifics about exactly how many offenders and personnel were being moved or from which facilities to protect their safety. He said that most were from smaller facilities that were minimum and medium custody security levels.

The transfers to safer facilities are taking place today and tomorrow, and Higgins said they could release more information once everyone was safe at their next locations.

“There’s been discussion since we first found out about this storm,” he said of the decision to move everyone, adding that it was a big, combined effort between a lot of agencies. “The big thing is just safety — safety for our staff, safety for our inmates and safety for the public as well.”

DPS is also working with the Department of Transportation to prepare the actual facilities in Florence’s path for a disaster. Facility maintenance is monitoring the situation and Higgins said there is extra equipment in place for their use.

“No one is going to go back there until its deemed 100 percent safe to go back,” he said.

As of 2 p.m., Hurricane Florence was about 845 miles east southeast of Cape Fear with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Inland flooding is expected along with life-threatening storm surges on the North and South Carolina coasts.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NC DMV gets federal subpoena for voter information targeting mainly immigrants but also some citizens

Any North Carolinian who didn’t fill out their voter registration form in English at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or who wasn’t born in one of the 50 U.S. states or the District of Columbia have been targeted as part of a federal criminal investigation.

The U.S. Attorneys Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued the DMV a subpoena at the same time they issued subpoenas to the State Board of Elections and the 44 county boards of elections — but the former was much more narrow than the latter and wasn’t made publicly available until today.

Jamie Kritzer, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Transportation, said Monday that the agency’s counsel was reviewing the subpoena. NC Policy Watch submitted a public records request for any correspondence between the agency and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but was told it may take some time to fill due to a high volume of requests and the impending hurricane.

The request to the DMV, which was made on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), targets mainly immigrants and children of immigrants by asking for non-citizen voter registration forms but even extends to citizens born anywhere outside the 50 U.S. states or the District of Columbia. That could mean North Carolinians born overseas at a military base or in U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam.

It asks for applications that were filled out in any language other than English and applications in which individuals did not have a driver’s license or a security card. It also asks for any and all applications in which a person presented a North Carolina identification card and not a driver’s license — this is a common scenario for people with disabilities, suspended licenses, the elderly and anyone who doesn’t drive but needs an ID.

Roughly 50 percent of voters register through the DMV, though that number varies by year, according to State Board spokesman Pat Gannon. For example, 68 to 69 percent of new registrants so far in 2018 registered through the DMV.

The U.S. Attorneys Office did not comment last week when asked about the subpoenas it sent to the State Board and the county boards of elections. Those subpoenas asked for an unprecedented amount of voter information and the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office is working to squelch them.

National media outlets reported last week that the elections subpoenas were related to an investigation in which a Wilmington grand jury indicted 19 foreign national citizens for allegedly illegally voting, but voting rights advocates are concerned the requests are a fishing expedition meant to interfere in the midterm elections by intimidating voters.

It’s not yet clear if the DMV will fight its subpoena, but the U.S. Attorneys Office has requested all the documents be returned to them by Sept. 25 for testimony before a Wilmington grand jury.

See the full subpoena and the voter information requested below:

NCDMV Subpoena by NC Policy Watch on Scribd