‘There’s no integrity in it.’ Voting-rights advocates denounce NC elections legislation

Voting-rights advocates denounced moves in the legislature they said would put ballots at risk of not being counted and counties at risk of not having enough money to run elections.

“As we’re seeing across the country this year, hundreds of bills that chip away at voter access are being advanced at an alarming rate,” said Chantal Stevens, ACLU of North Carolina executive director. “The bills being considered in our General Assembly come from this national playbook.”

Speakers at a news conference Monday criticized three Senate bills

  • Senate bill 326 would set a deadline of 5 p.m. on election day for mail-in ballots, eliminating the three-day grace period for ballots postmarked by election day.
  • Senate bill 724 would require the State Board of Elections to set up an online voter registration system, even though the state Division of Motor Vehicles already has one. The news conference organizers said the proposal would “needlessly complicate online voter registration.”
  • Senate bill 725 would prohibit the State Board of Elections and county boards from accepting private donations to help fund elections. Last year, the State Board and county boards applied for grants from nonprofits to help fund elections in the pandemic, Policy Watch has reported. The State Board used the money for two mailers to voters, single-use pens, and bonuses for workers at one-stop voting sites. The legislature appropriated $100 bonuses for election day workers, but left out workers who staffed early voting sites. Those who worked at early one-stop early voting sites received $19.56 for each day they worked. The State Board and 35 counties received grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, funded by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. The USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy gave elections grants to 10 counties. Conservative commentators jumped on the grants financed with Zuckerberg money, and states including Georgia and Arizona are banning outside elections donations.

“Voter suppression is about control – the ability to keep certain groups from exercising our fundamental right to choose how we are governed,” Stevens said. “Although these bills may appear to make small changes, they would have a big impact on voters and weaken our democracy.”

For more than 10 years, North Carolina has had a three-day grace period for mail-in ballots that are post-marked by election day to arrive at county elections boards.

At a Senate committee meeting last week, Sen. Paul Newton, a Republican representing District 36 in Cabarrus and Union counties, said counting ballots after election day “causes distrust in the process.”

For the 2020 elections, about 11,000 mail-in absentee ballots arrived in the three days after election day. Trash bags filled with paper were placed beside the speakers’ stand Monday to symbolize ballots that would be thrown out if the three-day window had been closed for last November’s election.

“This is called an Election Integrity Act, but there’s no integrity in it,” said La’Meshia Kaminski, Advance Carolina deputy political director. “We’ve seen this Jim Crow,” she said. “This is 2.0.”

The legislature in 2009 voted unanimously to set the mail-in ballot return deadline for three days after an election, said Jane Pinsky, director of the NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform. Sen. Phil Berger, now the chamber’s leader, and now-House Speaker Tim Moore were among those voting in favor.

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Expert: Census Bureau’s actions to protect individual privacy could have big impact on redistricting

Research suggests that technology moves will cause NC communities that are more integrated and diverse to be undercounted

In a nod to privacy concerns, technology experts at the U.S. Census Bureau are using newly developed algorithms to inject statistical “noise” into this year’s census that will make it harder to identify individuals.

Independent researchers, however, are worried that the privacy protection mechanism — known as “differential privacy” — may cause significant overcounts and undercounts for purposes of legislative redistricting.

Researchers voiced their concerns after the Census Bureau published the last testing data in late April ahead of the redistricting data release. Last week in an apparent response to those concerns, Census Bureau announced that it will reduce but not eliminate such noise in the data.

However, the data compiled with the new method won’t be released until September — after the expected date the information was to be used for redistricting.

Concerns over inaccuracy of data to be used in redistricting

Harvard researchers analyzed the April data for four states. In North Carolina, researchers found more racially diverse precincts lose 20 to 30 people on average, while less diverse precincts gain 10 to 15.

The lead author of the Harvard study, Christopher Kenny, a doctoral candidate at the Department of Government told Policy Watch that the difference between the population counts in North Carolina precincts in the proposal compared with the actual 2010 census count is “very stark.”

The imbalanced skew of population counts for communities with different racial compositions means that some voters’ power will be diluted while others will be amplified.

“Minority voters in those districts that have large mixed minority precincts and areas will have a less powerful vote because there will be more people voting than in the other areas,” Kenny explained.

There are more than 2,600 precincts in North Carolina. Each averages over 3,900 residents, based on the census count for congressional apportionment in April, which didn’t use the privacy protection algorithms.

The 2010 census used a different mechanism for privacy protection. At the time, population in a census block — the smallest geographic unit of the census tally — was not altered. The differential privacy proposal for the 2020 census though, sometimes changes the total counts of population in each census block.

The impact of this deviation, the analysis suggests, is that map drawers may not be able to reconfigure districts that reflect the true populations, as mandated by the “One Person, One Vote” principle affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s.

In addition, the privacy protection mechanism will result in white people being better counted than other groups that aren’t as large, because it counts the largest racial and ethnic groups more accurately, Kenny said.

“Once they release the 2020 data, they’re not going to release other accounts for you to compare it to,” Kenny explained  — noting that researchers can examine the accuracy of the algorithms only in September using the 2010 census.

Meanwhile, in Alabama a lawsuit is challenging the release of the 2020 census in the format in which differential privacy is applied.

Census Bureau takes steps to address concerns

The Census Bureau said in a Wednesday press release that the final redistricting data products will reduce the statistical noise from the April testing data, after accounting for feedback from groups like Kenny’s team. However, the agency said the population count accuracy won’t increase.

The release also says census experts are addressing concerns about the racial bias and the geographic bias that gives smaller, low-turnout and mixed-party geographies a disadvantage. Yet the results can only be examined after the September quality measurement data release.

“The decisions strike the best balance between the need to release detailed, usable statistics from the 2020 Census with our statutory responsibility to protect the privacy of individuals’ data,” said Ron Jarmin, acting director of the U.S. Census Bureau in the press release. “They were made after many years of research and candid feedback from data users and outside experts – whom we thank for their invaluable input.”

Kenny said he remains skeptical that the Census experts can resolve all the concerns with the short time it has to prepare for the newer data release. “I am hopeful that their changes will help fix some problems, but I can’t be confident that it will fix the scale of the problems that many users identified,” Kenny said in an email Friday. “It remains possible that their fixes to these few problems have introduced new errors on other dimensions.” He explained that if researchers identify these problems in September, many states will have already drawn their maps based on the problematic counts.

Kenny’s team issued a statement of its own on Wednesday in response to the Census Bureau announcement asking for greater transparency. “Although scholarly communities have not fully resolved the issue of incorporating additional noise into redistricting simulation analysis, the availability of such information should facilitate future methodological development,” the statement read. “In particular, it is of interest to examine whether or not the additional noise makes it more difficult to detect partisan and racial gerrymandering.”


NC writer David Zucchino wins the Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Wilmington’s Lie” — see him describe it here

The 105th class of Pulitzer Prize winners in Journalism, Books, Drama and Music were announced Friday and all caring and thinking North Carolinians will be delighted to know that Triangle-based writer David Zucchino was awarded the Pulitzer in the category of “General Nonfiction” for his book: Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy

The book is a “must read” for anyone who wants to better understand the stunning moral depravity of the late-19th Century racism that plagued our state and much of the American South.

And for those who may have missed it last month, you can access an easy-to-digest preview of the book by checking out the video from my May online conversation with the author.

The Zoom recording of the entire hour long conversation, can be viewed by clicking here. Enjoy.