NC Democratic legislators introduce sweeping election reform bills

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Rallying for election reforms, House Democrats unveiled a new bill entitled the “Fix Our Democracy Act” and highlighted a recently introduced measure designed to safeguard voting rights at a press conference Tuesday.

Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, said the Safeguarding Voting Rights bill (HB 446) she’s co-sponsoring “gives no favor to any party” by focusing on four areas to ensure ease and accessibility for voting: voter registration and absentee/mail-in voting, recruitment of pollworkers, increasing flexibility for voting hours and the rights to vote during state holidays.

Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham

Morey stressed the importance of expanding mail-in voting. The bill would require the state Board of Elections to send out absentee ballot requests to every eligible voter with pre-paid postage at least 90 days before Election Day. The bill would make the one-witness requirement enacted temporarily by the General Assembly for the 2020 elections a permanent measure. The bill further requires at least one drop-off site in each county. Ballots postmarked by Election Day would still be counted if received no later than three days after the Election Day at 5 pm.

“My colleagues and myself strongly believe this is the time we encourage people to vote,” Morey said.She noted that  HB 446 seeks to make voting secure and easy and noted the many restrictive voting bills have been introduced across the country.

Rep. Ashton Clemmons, D-Guilford, previewed another new bill HB 542. She said the Fix our Democracy Act aims to fix our democracy “each person having an equal voice”

Rep. Ashton Clemmons, D-Guilford

Clemmons explained that the proposal builds upon House and Senate bills with the same name from 2019, by advancing a series of reforms in elections, redistricting, voting, campaign finance, lobbying and transparency. Neither of the 2019 bills made it out of their committees.

A Senate version of HB 542, SB 716 has also been introduced by Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg.

Among the Fix Our Democracy Act’s provisions are:

Voting and redistricting

  • Online and automatic voter registration – The measure allows eligible citizens to register to vote automatically whenever they interact with government agencies, such as the DMV, unless they decline to do so. A voter purge would only be allowed when the nonforwarding postcard from the county board of commission was returned.
  • At least one polling place required on college campuses with over 4,500 enrolled students. Read more

New advisory board to review sentences of individuals tried in adult criminal court as teens

In keeping with “raise the age” law, Governor establishes new panel that can make recommendations for clemency

Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order Thursday forming the state’s Juvenile Sentence Review Board. The advisory board will review the sentences of people who were tried in adult criminal court in their teens over a decade ago, and then make clemency and commutation recommendations to the governor, according to a press release.

Nowadays, most teens under 18 enter juvenile courts first if they don’t have criminal convictions, except if the conviction is a misdemeanor unrelated to impaired driving under North Carolina’s bipartisan Raise the Age Act. Yet before the state enacted the law in December 2019, 16 and 17-year-olds were automatically tried in the state’s adult criminal justice system regardless of their charges.

Back then, teens were denied the chance to have their cases heard in juvenile court proceedings, which includes counseling and rehabilitation and the North Carolina Judicial Branch describes as “more informal and protective than a criminal trial.” Gov. Cooper’s order now reviews the petitions of qualified individuals who missed the new opportunity before the law was passed and potentially received harsher sentences.

Those eligible to file petitions must have served at least 20 years of their active sentences, or 15 years of their minimal sentence if they have multiple sentences.

“For those who have taken significant steps to reform and rehabilitate themselves, this process can provide a meaningful opportunity for release and a life outside of prison,” Cooper said in the press release.

After receiving petitions, the board will then make recommendations based on a petitioner’s prison record, circumstances of their case as well as their mental health state at the time, rehabilitation results, the present risks to public safety, their family’s input and whether race unduly influenced their trial or sentencing.

Rep. Marcia Morey was appointed chair of the Juvenile Sentence Review Board created by Gov. Cooper.

In his order, Cooper laid out two main tasks of the board: to “promote sentencing outcomes that consider the fundamental differences between juveniles and adults” and to “address the structural impact of racial bias.”

Cooper appointed four members of the board, who serve at his pleasure:

  • Marcia Morey, chair of the review board, is the state representative for House District 30. Morey, D-Durham, was a district court judge in Durham for 18 years before serving as Chief District Court Judge for five years. She is a member of the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice and proposed several Raise the Age bills this year.
  • Henry McKinley “Mickey” Michaux Jr. is a civil rights attorney and a retired state legislator. He represented House District 31 twice, from 1973 through 1977, and then 1983 to 2019.
  • Thomas Walker is a partner at the Atlanta-based law firm of Alston & Bird. He is a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina from 2011 to 2016. He was a special counsel to Cooper when Cooper served as the state’s attorney general.
  • Allyson Duncan is a former judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth District. Prior to her tenure on the federal appellate court, Duncan served as an associate judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the first African American in that position.

Morey touted the task force as “a monumental step forward for juveniles who were sentenced as adults” in a tweet.

The board was created at the recommendation of the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice.

The order is effective immediately through the end of 2024.

New unit launched in U.S. Dept. of Interior to investigate cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people

Bill seeks to prevent transgender women from competing on women’s athletic teams

A new N.C. House bill seeks to ban transgender women from competing on women’s athletic teams at public schools in North Carolina.

LGBTQ advocates are calling the bill part of a wave of anti-transgender legislation pushed by conservative groups and lawmakers across the country.

House Bill 358 (the “Save Women’s Sports Act”), filed Monday, would compel all public schools and universities to have sports teams designated male, female or co-ed. Under the bill “sex shall be recognized based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.”

The bill would also prohibit any “governmental entity, licensing or accrediting organization, or athletic association or organization” from opening an investigation or taking adverse action against a school for maintaining separate teams.

The bill claims that transgender women have inherent advantages in sports and says it aims to ensure “women are not forced to compete against men playing on women’s sports teams.” The bill lays out causes of action and remedies for women who believe they have been deprived of opportunities by anyone violating the act and institutions that believe they are subjected to “retaliation or adverse action” as a result of reporting violations.

The bill would also cover charter and private schools if they are part of a state-level association including the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.

“In North Carolina, girls deserve to again compete on a level playing field,” said Rep. Mark Brody (R-Union), one of the bill’s primary sponsors, in a statement Tuesday. “Instances of males competing in women’s sports exemplify the immediate need to act before fair competition and women’s athletic opportunities are destroyed. The Save Women’s Sports Act is the solution which ensures that all female athletes will be assured a level playing field to compete and win.”

Rebby Kern, education policy director for LGBTQ advocacy group Equality NC, denounced the bill in a statement Tuesday, referencing the HB2 fight of five years ago and negative publicity the international boycotts it sparked against the state.

“Five years after attacking transgender North Carolinians through the devastating impact of House Bill 2, NC House Republicans are once again targeting our transgender community,” Kern said. “It’s beyond disheartening to see that the North Carolina General Assembly has not learned the lessons of five years ago.”

“Young people all across this state, regardless of gender identity, deserve the opportunity to experience the benefits of being part of a sporting community — especially when trans youth already face disproportionate barriers to success in learning environments,” Kern said. “Equality NC believes that we can find a way to protect transgender youth and ensure that all youth, regardless of gender identity, have the opportunity to learn teamwork, sportsmanship, leadership, self-discipline, and all the other lessons that sports provide. We call on the NCGA to do their part in protecting all youth by passing clear nondiscrimination protections for youth in sport and beyond.”

James Michael Nichols, communications director at Equality NC, said the bill is part of a new wave of anti-transgender legislation happening across the country.

In a statement Tuesday, Equality NC called the bill “rooted in invasive and inappropriate questions about the sex assigned to young people at birth and outdated generalizations about male and female bodies.”

“Now that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have achieved a baseline level of cultural acceptance in America, anti-LGBTQ politicians have moved on to a more vulnerable target: our transgender brothers, sisters, and siblings,” Nichols said. “Trans people have always been at the forefront of the fight for LGBTQ rights and acceptance and borne the brunt of violence, discrimination, and targeted attacks against our community. Now, politicians want to limit the ability of young, trans folks to experience camaraderie and teamwork at a crucial developmental stage of life. It’s up to all LGBTQ people to show up for trans youth right now when they need us most.”

In a Tuesday statement, the Campaign for Southern Equality pointed out the bill would preempt what the group said are existing, reasonable regulations from the North Carolina High School Athletic Association that allow transgender students to participate in sports in a way that is consistent with their gender identities.

From the NCHSAA statement on its policy:

“The NCHSAA allows participation in interscholastic athletics for all students, regardless of gender or gender identification. It is the intent that all students are able to compete on a level playing field in a safe, competitive and friendly environment, free of discrimination.  Rules and regulations are intended to provide every student-athlete with equal opportunities to participate in athletics.

The NCHSAA regularly reviews all its policies. Prior to enacting the Gender Identity Policy, the NCHSAA engaged in a lengthy process of reviewing policies from other states, speaking with experts in the field, and seeking input from various stakeholders. This policy aligns the NCHSAA with other state athletic associations across the country while promoting the NCHSAA’s mission of inclusive sports participation in North Carolina.”


Allison Scott, Director of Impact & Innovation at the Campaign for Southern Equality, said North Carolina is already beyond such legislation.

“This anti-transgender bill is an outlier in North Carolina, and it doesn’t reflect where we are as a state,” said, who is transgender. “We have come so far since the days of HB2, and we’re better off for it: LGBTQ people feel safer, business leaders are becoming more comfortable investing here, and our communities are more inclusive and respectful. It pains me to see some lawmakers, egged on by extreme anti-transgender activists running a coordinated national attack on trans youth, trying to drag us back into an era of discrimination.”

“The truth is that transgender youth deserve the same access as any other student to the many benefits of participating in school sports, including the physical, social, and emotional impacts,” Scott said. “To categorically deny transgender students the freedom to play alongside their peers is at odds with lawmakers’ duties to care for and protect our youth. To all of the transgender youth feeling attacked by this bill and others like it nationwide, I want to be sure you understand that you are loved, you are seen, and we are fighting with you.”

Individuals charged with misdemeanors could get their first appearance in NC courts sooner under bipartisan bill

Under state law, individuals charged with felony offenses are guaranteed a first appearance hearing before a district court official within 96 hours after they are taken into custody. But the same rule doesn’t apply to those facing misdemeanor charges. On Wednesday, however, a House bill that would make the time limit uniform for felonies and misdemeanors and reduce it to 72 hours was approved by the House Judiciary 3 Committee.

Image: NC Criminal Court Process, via North Carolina Bar Association

District court is typically the entry point for those involved in criminal cases. At first appearance hearings, individuals facing charges have their bail reviewed by a judge or magistrate, a lawyer assigned to their case, and a court date set for later.

Without the same mandate that applies to felony charges, however, some defendants accused of misdemeanors sit in jail awaiting their first court appearances for weeks, even longer than the jail time they could have been sentenced to, said Rep. Joe John, D-Wake, a lead sponsor of the bill at the meeting.

The bill was recommended by the Courts Commission, a non-standing committee of the General Assembly. A previous version of this bill was filed in the legislative session last year but was never heard by any committee.

John is a member of the Courts Commission. He served as a district court judge and later a superior court judge based in Greensboro, and presided over trials for more than 25 years.

John told Policy Watch that some jurisdictions  already hold both felony and misdemeanor court sessions within 96 hours of the initial arrest, but it’s necessary to adopt a uniform practice across the state.

While the original bill would have set a 96 hour requirement for both felony and misdemeanor charges, an amendment adopted during Wednesday’s meeting lowered the limit to 72 hours. That means a person detained in jail on a Friday would get their case heard by the following Monday.

Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-Haywood, Jackson, Swain) said he supports the bill but not the amendment, citing concerns over the difficulty of traveling for sheriff’s offices in mountainous regions like his jurisdiction.

Chuck Spahos, a representative of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys said at the meeting that those charged with felonies and misdemeanors should receive the same treatment of up to 96 hours before the first appearance hearing.

The Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice established by Gov. Roy Cooper recommended that legislators require the first appearance hearing in 48 hours or the next in-session day in district court.

John emphasized at the committee that the bill also provides that clerks of court can conduct first appearance proceedings. Clerks of court in North Carolina have the authority to do so when judges are unavailable under current law.