Bipartisan elections bill filed; would quell some voter access concerns amid COVID-19

The bipartisan election bill North Carolinians have been waiting weeks to see is finally here.

House lawmakers filed House Bill 1169 this morning, and it contains a lot of the measures the State Board of Elections and voting rights advocates have asked for to prepare for conducting an election in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill reduces the requirement for absentee mail-in ballots from two witnesses to one; it gives counties greater flexibility in where they assign poll workers; it allows voters to submit an absentee ballot request form via email, online portal, fax, mail or in-person (currently voters can submit an absentee ballot request form only by mail or in person); it allocates matching funds to receive federal dollars made available through the CARES Act and directs money to counties for preparation of election administration during the pandemic.

“This bill is a positive step toward ensuring every eligible North Carolina voter is able to safely and securely cast a ballot in this year’s elections,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC. “We applaud members on both sides of the aisle for this bipartisan effort. As the bill makes its way through each legislative chamber, we urge lawmakers to be responsive to suggestions from election experts and the public. Ultimately, it is crucial that we work together to fully prepare our state to conduct an election that is free and fair for all.”

Lawmakers are set to discuss the bill at a House Elections and Ethics Law Committee at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Primary sponsors of House Bill 1169 include Rep. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover) and Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell), who are both co-chairs of the Committee that will meet next week. Committee members Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake) and Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) are also sponsors of the measure.

There are at least two lawsuits pending to try and force the state to make elections more accessible in North Carolina. HB 1169, if passed, would satisfy most of the requests that plaintiffs have made in those suits.

The bill would prohibit the State Board of Elections from moving to an all mail election or sending ballots to North Carolinians who didn’t request them. It should be noted, though, that neither the Board or voting rights advocates ever asked for an all mail election.

House Speaker Tim Moore commended lawmakers in a Friday news release for their work on the measure.

“Voters deserve consensus bipartisan efforts to improve our elections systems, and this General Assembly will provide the necessary funding and reforms to effectively administer elections in the 2020 cycle,” he said.

Judge denies help request for incarcerated people

Help is not coming for North Carolina’s incarcerated population facing growing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier denied requests from incarcerated people and civil rights organizations to force Gov. Roy Cooper and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to take more precautions to allow for social distancing.

His two-page order didn’t explain why he denied their requests, citing case law that injunctions like the one the plaintiffs requested are “generally disfavored and are only appropriate where the case is urgent and where the right is clear.”

Members of the organizations who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit vowed to keep fighting but didn’t specifically state they would appeal the decision. A spokesperson said attorneys are still reviewing and evaluating all legal options.

“We are disappointed that the court denied our motion for an emergency order to address this worsening and deadly crisis, but this fight is not over,” said Kristi Graunke, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “We will continue to do everything we can to save lives and hold state officials accountable to what the Constitution requires: the protection of human beings in their custody who are imprisoned under conditions that put them at unacceptable risk of being infected with this deadly disease.”

On April 21, after the North Carolina Supreme Court denied a petition to take up the case, the ACLU of NC, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, and the National Juvenile Justice Network filed the lawsuit in Superior Court. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the NC NAACP, Disability Rights NC, the ACLU of NC, three people who are currently incarcerated and a spouse of an incarcerated person.

“This fight goes on, but we cannot ignore the real and devastating human impact this ruling will have: real people will likely die,” said Dawn Blagrove, Executive Director and attorney at Emancipate NC. “Real families will mourn the unnecessary loss of loved ones, and those families will disproportionately be people of color.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, DPS reported 644 people in prison who tested positive for COVID-19. Five people have died from the virus.

The agency submitted detailed information last week to Rozier about how it was responding to the pandemic. The documents stated that incarcerated people were provided two masks and get two bars of soap per week, but it also included plans for how prisons can begin getting back to normal operations.

The plaintiffs had hoped Rozier would appoint a special master in the case to help DPS take a more aggressive approach to releasing incarcerated people and implementing more precautions to protect their health and their lives.

“The fact remains that what’s unfolding in our state prisons is a humanitarian disaster that endangers the lives of thousands of incarcerated people, prison staff, and our entire community,” said Susan Pollitt, supervising attorney at Disability Rights NC. “Regardless of this ruling, we will continue to advocate for the safety of people with disabilities and all vulnerable people in state custody.”

Read the full order from Wednesday below.

20 CVS 500110 Order 5 13 2020 (Text)

Report: NC Supreme Court jury race discrimination decision part of nationwide trend

The North Carolina Supreme Court is part of a growing number of state courts addressing unconscious racism, also known as implicit bias, in jury selection, according to a new report from The Marshall Project.

NC Policy Watch reported in early May about the state’s highest court historic ruling in a jury discrimination case. For the first time, the state Supreme Court gave lower courts guidance about how to investigate and better assess claims of racial discrimination in jury selection. The decision was hailed by criminal justice reform advocates as progress for the only state in the nation whose appellate courts have never acknowledged race discrimination against jurors of color.

The new opinion is part of a larger effort across the nation in which state courts are reconsidering more seriously how race affects jury selection. The Marshall Project article states high courts in Washington, California and Connecticut have called on or implemented changes to address how implicit bias can unfairly exclude Black people from juries.

“Recent research has unveiled unconscious racism driving everything from police-involved shootings of black men to charging decisions made by prosecutors. Researchers have found that people are more likely to perceive black people as guilty, more likely to shoot them in police simulations and more likely to remove them from juries, even when their other demographics are identical to white potential jurors’,” the article states.

The first state to do so was Washington, which in 2018 issued a rule requiring judges to consider “implicit, institutional, and unconscious biases, in addition to purposeful discrimination,” the article states.

The story goes on:

“At the core of recent arguments about racism in jury selection is the recognition that attorneys too often ‘rely on stereotypes like who is going to be sympathetic or not’ says Catherine Grosso, a Michigan State University law professor who co-authored a seminal 2012 study of death penalty cases in North Carolina. The study found that black people were removed from juries at more than twice the rate of those of other races. The data undergirds [Cedric] Hobbs’ appeal [in North Carolina]. ‘I think what we’re seeing is a recognition that even explicit racism doesn’t always have a smoking gun.'”

Read the full Marshall Project report online. In it, David Weiss, a staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and one of Hobbs’ attorneys, said he is hopeful the North Carolina high court will create a working group to look at implicit bias.

Court filings: Here’s what DPS says its doing for incarcerated people, juveniles

Most incarcerated people in North Carolina have been given at least two single-ply masks and get two bars of soap per week to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Department of Public Safety officials plan to discuss in the next month how to transition back to normal operations, according to Friday court filings related to a lawsuit filed by civil rights organizations and incarcerated people.

Releasing people from facilities is not part of the agency’s 30-day plan.

Judge Vince Rozier recently asked DPS to provide more facility-specific information about its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it was keeping incarcerated people safe. His order was part of a lawsuit alleging DPS isn’t doing enough to protect incarcerated people; the lawsuit asked for the agency to release thousands of incarcerated people to make social distancing in facilities possible.

DPS responded by providing a chart with mostly yes or no answers about whether each adult corrections facility had provided residents with masks, soap and sanitizer, and if they’re following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). It also provided affidavits from every facility warden to confirm the information is true.

Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee also outlined a 30-day DPS plan in his affidavit, which includes collaborating with the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a plan to move incarcerated people who have recovered from COVID-19 back to the regular population. Other parts of the plan discuss evaluating how to safely distribute alcohol-based sanitizer to the entire population.

Ishee reported as of Thursday, there were 643 incarcerated people who had tested positive for the virus. The DPS website reported 642 positive tests as of 3 p.m. Sunday.

The chart for adult corrections does not specify how each facility’s living conditions prevent the spread of COVID-19, and only states “yes” for every facility stating i does meet conditions. Individual affidavits go into more detail.

DPS also provided a chart for juvenile facilities, which is more detailed than that for adult facilities. There have not yet been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 at a juvenile facility, according to court documents.

In addition to submitting more information about its COVID-19 response, Rozier ordered  plaintiffs and defendants to confer and try to agree on names of potential special masters he could appoint to guide a more specific response to the pandemic. The parties were unable to agree and each submitted their own list of names. Read more

NC voters backed by Democratic groups file lawsuit over absentee ballot restrictions during COVID-19 pandemic

A group of North Carolina voters backed by funding from two well-known Democratic groups filed a lawsuit today challenging restriction on voting by mail.

The lawsuit, which is supported by the Right to Vote Foundation and the National Redistricting Foundation (NRF), cites the COVID-19 pandemic as creating or exacerbating issues related to North Carolina’s existing absentee voting procedures. Specifically, it challenges the state’s ballot postage requirements, witness requirements, the deadline by which election officials must receive mailed ballots, and the rules and procedures around signature matching.

The case was filed in the Wake County Superior Court making claims under the state constitution of North Carolina.

“This case could not be more urgent,” said said Eric H. Holder, Jr., former U.S. Attorney and current head of the NRF. “The state must begin preparations now to ensure that the procedures necessary for increased vote at home and safe in person voting are in place for the citizens of North Carolina. The voters in this state must not be forced to choose between protecting the community’s health and their right to vote.”

Lawmakers have not yet taken up any voting or election changes this session, despite passing a $1.6 billion COVID relief bill over the weekend. The absentee ballot requirements currently in place were passed after an illegal scheme was uncovered in the 9th Congressional District midterm election in 2018.

J.B. Poersch of the Right to Vote Foundation said Wisconsin, which held an election during the pandemic, has shown that states need to do all they can to ensure the health and safety of residents who want vote.

“We must act now to lift these burdensome restrictions so that North Carolina is appropriately prepared for the influx of absentee voting in November as our nation deals with the COVID-19 crisis,” he said.

The State Board of Elections has said it expects a 40 percent increase in the use of mail ballots and recently made a number of recommendations to the General Assembly to ease the burdens.

The lawsuit asks the court to require the state to provide pre-paid postage on all absentee ballots and ballot request so that voters are not forced to pay for casting a ballot; to enjoin the requirement that a voter must have two witnesses or a notary verify a ballot; to extend the deadline for mail ballots to be received nine days after Election Day, which matches the deadline for military-overseas ballots; and to block election officials from rejecting ballots for signature discrepancies without giving a voter the chance to fix the issue.

The Right to Vote Foundation is 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. It already filed a lawsuit earlier this year over absentee voting restrictions.