Crunch time in Raleigh with money, schools, and power all on the table

Here in the last week of October, almost four months after a new state budget was supposed to have been in place and with multiple plot-lines coming to a head, North Carolina’s government is like a somewhat rickety aircraft stressed to the limits amid a thunderstorm.

Not only that, but there’s fighting in the cockpit!

  • Republican chiefs in the General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper seem to be in the final stages of negotiating a budget that Cooper – for a change – won’t feel obliged to veto.
  • Figuring in the talks has been a possible broadening of the state’s Medicaid program, as the governor to his credit long has sought and his legislative foes long have resisted. From Cooper’s standpoint, simply getting to the point of considering Medicaid expansion that would improve health care access for many thousands of low-income citizens has to represent progress, compared to legislators’ flat-out refusals in recent years.
  • In tandem with the budget dispute is the latest chapter in the state’s long struggle over funding for public schools – in particular, those schools serving high proportions of economically challenged families and communities.
  • A judge who oversees the state’s response to a court ruling that aimed to bolster    schools in high-poverty districts is threatening to force the legislature’s hand if it doesn’t include more public education funds in the pending budget deal.
  • Legislators already accuse Superior Court Judge David Lee of overstepping his authority, so we could be on the brink of a massive collision between branches of government. What’s at stake is nothing less than the ability of many thousands of students to get the “sound basic” education to which the state Supreme Court has said they’re constitutionally entitled.
  • As if the turbulence over the budget and its school finance provisions weren’t serious enough, the legislature is moving toward decisions that could profoundly affect the make-up of the state’s congressional delegation and the General Assembly itself for years to come. As required so that every vote carries more or less equal weight, new congressional and legislative voting districts are being drawn in accord with population growth and shifts revealed by the 2020 census.
  • Here’s the question: Will Republicans seeking to shape districts in their candidates’ favor resort to the kind of gerrymandering that courts repeatedly have found to be unconstitutional in discriminating against African-American voters and in some instances against voters who happen to be Democrats? Voting rights advocates, including groups such as the N.C. Council of Churches, hope to see the process end with all voters given a fair chance to influence the choice of their elected leaders and thus the policies that have an inside track toward adoption.

Budget conflicts

Gov. Cooper in 2019 vetoed the legislature’s last stab at passing a budget according to the usual two-year schedule, and his Democratic allies in the state House and Senate joined in sufficient numbers to block Republican attempts at a veto override.

The deal-breakers for the governor boiled down to low-ball expenditures for public schools, including teacher pay; tax cuts that continued to hamper the state’s ability to invest in a range of programs; and a refusal to expand Medicaid despite the anticipated health and economic benefits.

Since then, the pandemic has put North Carolina through a tragic stress test. Gaps between our affluent, metro-area counties and their rural, small-town counterparts – gaps in health care, job opportunities, school quality – have been magnified. A new openness to Medicaid expansion on the part of some Republican legislators – encouraged by GOP officials in several mountain counties hammered by the virus and loss of jobs – could be an understandable response.

But if expansion still doesn’t have enough support to be included in the budget that’s now in final talks, as it may well not, at least advocates could push for an agreement to have it fully considered as a stand-alone measure. There can be no credible objections to accepting a huge new infusion of federal Medicaid funds for which the state would qualify, or to improving health-care access for people who now typically can’t afford even the routine care that many among us take for granted.

Fairer for teachers? Read more

NC GOP lawmakers advance election laws changes premised on Trump’s delusions and lies

North Carolina legislators – offering what amounts to a snappy salute in the direction of Mar-a-Lago – are well on their way toward fixing an election law that’s anything but broken.

If they succeed, they will have managed to inject a dose of inconvenience and uncertainty into the state’s system of mail-in absentee voting, which proved so popular last fall as an alternative to in-person voting during the pandemic.

Mail-in voting, Tar Heel style, worked just fine despite a record turnout. But that hasn’t stopped our former president from complaining about any voting regime that allows ballots received after Election Day to be counted, even if they were provably mailed by an Election Day deadline.

It’s part of Donald Trump’s ongoing grand exercise in cynical disinformation intended to convince Americans that he defeated Joe Biden, facts to the contrary – an exercise that plainly spurred the violent Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters.

For the past dozen years, an otherwise eligible North Carolinian who wanted to vote by mail has had until Election Day proper to send in his or her ballot. It has to be postmarked to show that it was cast no later than that day. To be counted, it must be received by the voter’s county elections board within three days afterward.

In essence, that has put absentee voters on the same footing as those who go to the polls in person. People in both categories could wait until Election Day to finalize their choices and fill out their ballots – a voter-friendly accommodation that in the aggregate helps boost the quality of those chosen.

There was one notable exception to that process. Last year, with absentee ballot volumes soaring off the charts at the same time mail deliveries were bogging down because of ill-conceived and ill-timed cost-cutting efforts by the Postal Service, the deadline for receipt was stretched to nine days after Election Day.

That drove Republican legislators up the wall. They claimed the State Board of Elections had usurped legislative prerogatives in making the change, even though a court challenge along those lines flopped. Three state senators – Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine, Paul Newton of Mount Pleasant and Warren Daniel of Morganton – began pushing to strip away the post-election grace period entirely.

False on fraud

Thus emerged Senate Bill 326, now dubbed the Election Day Integrity Act. The bill was approved by Senate elections and rules committees on June 9 and June 10, respectively. It has a clear path forward with support from the full chamber’s Republican majority. The larger picture: Donald Trump claims, with zero justification, that post-Election Day ballot counting is a recipe for fraud. His allies then jump to abolish a provision that helps all voters, of whichever party or none, and that has functioned apparently without a hitch.

Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus of Charlotte unloosed one of several volleys of criticism directed at the bill during committee proceedings. She told the elections panel it would force absentee voters to guess when their ballots would have to be mailed so they would be counted, leaving them “at the mercy of the U.S. Postal Service.” Which, of course, has been dogged by suspicion that delivery slowdowns were engineered by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, the big-time Trump campaign donor from Greensboro.

Although bill sponsors maintained that voters would adjust to the new requirement, they failed to acknowledge that in 2020, plenty of valid ballots came in after Election Day. That suggests many voters took advantage of all the available time, perhaps to decide on their preferred candidates (Trump and Biden were at the top of a very long ballot). The upshot of making the mailed-ballot option clunkier and less reliable: as Marcus put it, “Bipartisan disenfranchisement.”

Sen. Daniel framed the bill as an effort to boost voters’ confidence that election results are fairly and honestly recorded. “Dragging out the process breeds distrust,” he said, asserting that 28 states already require mailed absentee ballots to be received no later than Election Day.

Of course that means North Carolina, with its grace period, already has plenty of company – and far better for our state to encourage more voting rather than less, even if that runs afoul of Trump’s bogus “stolen election” theory.  Read more

NC Democrats push for common sense voting reforms

Say this much, at least, for those legislators who favor making it easier, not harder, for North Carolinians to vote: They’re not ready to surrender to their vote-suppressing foes.

Even as key Republicans in the state Senate push changes to absentee voting rules whose main purpose would be to gum up the works, a group of House Democrats is pushing the other way.

Their bill entitled “Safeguarding Voting Rights,” introduced March 31 as House Bill 446, would protect popular voting options and in general encourage citizens to have their say at the polls.

It likely has zero chance of passage in a General Assembly controlled by Republicans in sync with the party’s national effort to downsize the electorate in its favor. But it shows the kind of steps that could be taken to strengthen our state’s voting procedures if maximum participation is the goal – while highlighting the divide between those who think maximum participation works in the public interest and those who don’t.

Here’s another point that needs to be made as Republicans from the former president on down continue to raise unfounded concerns about voter fraud. Of course the provisions of HB 446 would have to be carefully vetted to avoid any compromise of election security. But there’s no reason to think that shoring up access to the polls has to pave the way for cheating, or worse, that it’s meant to do so.

We should instead recall the high standard of efficiency and honesty that the state’s elections officials managed to meet even as turnout surged during the presidential election conducted last fall amid a deadly pandemic. For those worried about “election integrity,” now a favorite Republican cause, virus-era adjustments that helped people vote safely and securely should have drawn cheers, not jeers.

HB 446 so far has 32 sponsors, all Democrats – amounting to a majority of the party’s 51 House members (vs. 69 Republicans). Its primary sponsors are Reps. Marcia Morey of Durham, Allison Dahle of Raleigh, Kandie Smith of Greenville and Amos Quick III of Greensboro. Among the bill’s notable features, it would let absentee voters submit their ballots with the signature of only one witness rather than two.

The one-witness rule was approved by the legislature as a stop-gap response to the risks posed by in-person contact during the pandemic, but it now has lapsed. There’s ample reason to extend it, even if the COVID-19 threat continues to fade. It makes absentee voting more convenient with no evidence that it facilitates fraud. A huge increase in the number of absentee voters was a significant driver of 2020’s high turnout, and no doubt many of those voters would choose that method again if didn’t pose undue hassles.

Ballot ballet

The bill would affirm that as provided under current law, voters could apply for absentee ballots as late as the Tuesday before an election, and if a ballot was submitted by mail, it would count so long as it was received by the third day after Election Day.

However, it appears to drop the requirement that ballots also must be postmarked by Election Day. That presumably is in recognition that some mail these days isn’t postmarked at all. Yet the notion that ballots might be counted even if they were mailed after voting was supposed to have ended shapes up as a red flag.

Republican-sponsored Senate Bill 326, now pending, would advance the application deadline by a week and make Election Day the cutoff for receipt – essentially giving absentee voters the bum’s rush. Read more

The real perpetrators of fraud regarding the 2020 election

(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The United States Congress, a week after the nation’s Capitol was overrun by a violent mob while lawmakers were carrying out one of their paramount duties, now faces a paramount challenge: how to hold President Trump properly accountable for his role in the insurrection.

Failure to do so, whether by forced resignation or impeachment, would be an intolerable insult to the rule of law and thus to America’s system of government.

Trump stoked his followers to malevolent fury as he urged them to fight to overthrow his re-election loss to Joe Biden. It was the culmination of his effort to discredit the election as shot through with voter fraud unless he emerged the winner.

But the alleged “steal” that his followers sought to avenge as they ransacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 and put lawmakers’ lives as risk was a fraud itself. None of the purported evidence Trump cited in his pre-riot harangue on the Ellipse has stood up under inspection by the authorities and the courts as having had any bearing on the election’s outcome. He manifestly didn’t win in a landslide, as he has continued to assert.

This was plain enough to some Republicans who have been among the president’s most stalwart allies – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example. North Carolina’s two senators, Republicans Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, joined the overwhelming majority of their colleagues in bucking Trump’s insistence that Congress refuse to certify Biden’s victory. Both the Senate and House affirmed that victory just hours after reclaiming chambers that had been overrun by rioters.

In the House, however, even with the same outcome the dynamic was different. Among many Republicans there seemed to be an inability, if not an outright refusal, to process what had just occurred – a mob’s brutal invasion of the nation’s civic sanctum.

It was a mob incited by the president, desperate to stay in the White House. And it was a mob all too willing to believe Trump’s bogus claims that he – and they also, as his “army” – had been cheated of their mutual grip on power.

North Carolina’s House Republicans hardly covered themselves with glory as they aligned themselves with the president and his lawless supporting cast.

Of the state’s eight GOP House members, only Rep. Patrick McHenry of Denver (10th District) agreed to certify the contested electors from Pennsylvania – which Trump had spotlighted as a supposed hotbed of fraud despite his failure to offer any proof recognized by the courts. McHenry said that refusing to approve lawfully chosen electors would have violated his oath to uphold the Constitution.

Apparently the other seven – Dan Bishop of Charlotte (Ninth District), Ted Budd of Advance (13th), Madison Cawthorn of Hendersonville (11th), Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk (Fifth), Richard Hudson of Concord (Eighth), Greg Murphy of Greenville (Third) and David Rouzer of Benson (Seventh) – took a more lenient view of their sworn obligations. All were among the 138 Republicans who sided with Trump and the insurrectionists in voting to reject Pennsylvania’s pro-Biden slate of electors. The same group, minus Foxx and Murphy, also voted against the Arizona slate.

Proof? Poof

At his rally before the rioters swarmed to Capitol Hill, Trump unspooled a litany of allegations about election fraud not only in Pennsylvania and Arizona but also in the crucial swing states of Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada.

Of course, it’s impossible to show that fraud was utterly nonexistent. That provides a fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

What has been affirmed by none other than Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr — who quit just as the post-election drama looked as though it might drag him into the conspiracy quicksand – is that no fraud has been found that would have affected the election’s outcome. Trump and his allies simply can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that their dozens of attempts to challenge the results in various state and federal courts have flopped because, when it comes to any wrongdoing, none of their allegations have held water.

Ironically, Trump in his tirade hit on a kernel of truth when he linked his defeat to the coronavirus pandemic. His mishandling of the plague that has taken in the range of 380,000 American lives certainly was a campaign factor.

But that wasn’t the president’s point. He wasn’t conceding that his failure to lead an aggressive federal response and to convince people to wear masks had given Biden an edge. His complaint was that Democrats took advantage of the pandemic to tilt election rules in their favor and set the stage for fraud.

Which leads to another kernel of truth: Amid the pandemic, election rules in several states indeed were modified so that voting would be both more convenient and safer. For example, in North Carolina, as the virus began cutting its deadly swath last spring, the State Board of Elections proposed among other changes making it easier to vote absentee by mail. The General Assembly responded by reducing the absentee ballot witness requirement from two persons to one. Read more

Virus-era voting: The stakes couldn’t be higher

"Vote" pin

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[Editor’s note: This article was written before the chaotic April 7 Wisconsin primary, in which many voters were forced to put their health at risk in order to cast in-person ballots, and before President Trump urged his fellow Republicans to resist any further move toward mail-in or absentee voting because it would hurt their election chances in the fall.]

In keeping with the familiar rhythms of American politics, this is a year when many of our elected leaders, including the president, and their would-be successors will stand for inspection before the voters. They will offer themselves for judgment on their performance, for appraisal of their likely success going forward, for assessment of character and qualities of leadership.

There must be this caveat, however: It is only through elections that are fully accessible, fair and accurate that we as citizens can properly render our findings.

Of course the road toward elections meeting that high standard has been full of twists and potholes. But then along came the coronavirus plague of 2020, posing degrees of uncertainty and confusion for the ongoing election cycle that could shake our democracy to the core. If we let it.

The overriding challenge now facing not only our governments at all levels but also our entire society is to save as many lives as possible while also protecting people from the ravages of economic shutdowns that are needed to keep the virus from spreading.

But there also must be a concerted effort to think through how the pandemic could, and likely will, disrupt the usual ways we go about preparing for and conducting elections next fall – including the voting that’s supposed to determine whether President Trump will serve a second term.

That includes the process of candidate selection – already thrown off-stride in the presidential race as Democratic front-runner Joe Biden has had to put his campaign in neutral just as he appeared poised to claim the role of presumptive nominee.

Fortunately in North Carolina, where primary elections were held on March 3, candidates from both parties have been chosen for races up and down the ballot. (A delayed runoff for the Republican nomination in the 11th Congressional District is scheduled for June 23.) But several other states where primaries have yet to be held now must navigate stay-at-home orders, social distancing and other obstacles to business as usual.

At least those efforts could amount to trial runs for the kinds of steps that could well be needed in order to hold credible elections in November – when the stakes will indeed be huge.

Systems under stress

The N.C. Council of Churches long has emphasized the importance of robust voter participation in fairly and honestly conducted elections as a top social justice priority. If elected leaders are to be fully accountable, they must answer to the broadest possible cross-section of the voting public, including folks who otherwise have been pushed to the margins of influence and advantage.

That premise stands as securely as ever during a year when the vulnerable among us – those thrown out of work amid economic turmoil, those in crowded, substandard housing, those facing unmanageable expenses for health care – must cope with challenges on a crushing scale.

But just as significant is that for the first time in living memory, what will be tested in the months to come is our system’s capacity to reflect the views of enough eligible voters to bestow the consent of the governed that lies at the heart of democracy and, when called for, that clears the way for orderly transfers of power. Read more