N.C. Senate Democrats, civil right advocates worry bills claiming to expand voting rights do the exact opposite

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North Carolina senators on the Redistricting and Elections Committee disagreed on steps to protect the rights of voters in a heated committee hearing on Wednesday. The disagreement revolved around the discussion of three bills — all of which essentially echo an earlier version of the “Election Integrity Act” (Senate Bill 326) a Republican proposal that the progressive  Brennan Center for Justice classified as one “restricting voting access.” The three bills (a revised version of SB 326, along with Senate Bills 724 and 725) were sponsored by the three co-chairs of the committee, Sens. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, Ralph Hise, R-Madison and Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus. All three won approval and were referred to the Senate Rules Committee.

SB 326: Eliminating the grace period for absentee ballot receipts after Election Day

SB 326 was simplified to focus on moving up deadlines for absentee ballots. It would make 5:00 pm on the day of the election the final deadline for the receipt of mailed ballots during any statewide primary, general election and county bond elections. Lawmakers extended the deadline last year by three days for ballots postmarked by Election Day — a number that was later extended to nine in response to a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups.

”We don’t need to rehash again in this committee the collusive settlement entered by Attorney General Stein and director Brinson Bell that subverted state law to extend the absentee ballot deadline from three days after Election Day to nine days after Election Day,“ Daniel said the settlement undermined the confidence in the election system.

Heather Murphy, an Air Force veteran spoke against the bill, saying the bill poses a threat to legally cast ballots that arrive late because of delays. “That’s a big problem for veterans like me as one in five military voters in North Carolina cast a ballot by mail in the 2020 general election,” Murphy said.

Bob Philips, the executive director of Common Cause NC, a grassroots organization said in a press release: “There is absolutely no evidence that this change is needed. It would simply hurt North Carolina voters, especially those in rural communities, who follow the rules but could have their ballot unfairly invalidated because of a delay in mail delivery. We call on legislators to reject Senate Bill 326.”

While mailed ballots would need to be received by 5:00 pm on Election Day, the new version would do away with the requirement that  absentee ballot requests be submitted seven days before the election. Daniel said the bill now would give voters 53 days to request an absentee ballot and 17 to vote early in person.

Modifications to the bill adopted in the committee would also require county boards of elections to report more data to the State Board of Elections. That includes the number of total absentee ballots, as well outstanding and spoiled ones. The State Board of Elections would in turn be required to release such reports.

Sen. Paul Newton presents voting-related bills at the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee on June 9, 2021

SB 725: Prohibiting outside grants for boards of elections

Entitled “Prohibit Private Money in Elections Admin.”, SB 725 would ban the state and county boards of elections and the county boards of commissioners from accepting private donations for election administration.

“Let’s nip this idea that private organizations can selectively fund within counties what they care about, what aligns with maybe their ideology,” Newton said.

Andy Jackson, a representative of the conservative John Locke Foundation spoke in support of the bill. He said the main outside funding comes from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a group founded by members of voter outreach group Organizing Institute, which mainly received money from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Pricilla Chan.

“Thirty-three counties that the organization gave funds backed Democrat Cal Cunningham, 52.7% to 47.3% while the other 67 counties that did not receive that funding, supporting Republican Tom Tillis 53.6% to 46.4%,” Jackson said.

Similar bills have been passed in other states such as Georgia and Arizona, according to a report by The Hill, which also stated that a total of $350 million to the Center for Tech and Civic Life funded 2,500 county and city election officials.

Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg, said the state legislature has failed to support elections adequately in the 2020 response during the pandemic, harming voters’ access to the ballot.

“I don’t understand why we just said, well, we’ll leave it up to counties to figure it out and luckily these groups stepped in,” Marcus said.

SB 724: “Expand Access to Voter ID & Voting”

Newton described SB 724 as “all about expanding voter access in North Carolina.” The bill proposes three key measures. First, it would improve accessibility for visually-impaired votes when using the online portal to vote. Second, it would create a program that would provide photo IDs for the purpose of voting for lack of an alternative existing ID. Third, it would mandate the State Board of Elections to overhaul their website to allow voter registration online. Currently, the service is offered by the DMV.

Marcus raised doubts about whether the process will be duplicative and whether the SBOE has the technology to deliver what the bill calls for.

Newton did not directly address her concern. Instead, he said, “We’ve been working with the Board of Elections; We’ve taken every change they’ve asked to make on this provision, or any other provision.”

Kelly Tornow, a state board of elections legislative liaison said during public comment at the hearing that she is unclear about the implementation of the bill.

Failure to transfer the DMV data to the SBOE website could result in verification errors and disenfranchisement, a statement from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said. The voting rights advocacy group noted that only current and valid licenses could be used for the proposed online voter registration system under the bill’s proposal, while the current DMV site still accepts inactive licenses.

The group North Carolina Asian Americans Together issued a highly critical statement in which it called SB 724 “a litigation strategy cloaked in a bill without actually responding to voter access needs.” It noted that the bill would likely cause errors and confusion, as the Voter ID law passed in 2018 is still been litigated in state and federal court, facing Constitutional challenges that it discriminates against communities of color.

“Voter ID may also discourage Asian Americans from voting when forced to show identification because they look “too foreign” or because their English is limited,” the statement noted.

The group is opposed to all three bills. “These bills that legislators claim will preserve the integrity of elections will instead disenfranchise Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities as well as Asian American voters,” the statement read.

[Note: This story was updated to include a statement on SB 724 from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.]

New report lays out vision for democracy reform in North Carolina

More than 20 experts from leading research and advocacy organizations proposed reform measures for North Carolina in a report titled “Blueprint for a Stronger Democracy” released Tuesday. The report zeroes in on policy discussions around voting, redistricting, campaign finance reforms and judicial accountability.

In addition to expertise from national organizations, such as the Brennan Center for Justice, the Voters’ Rights to Know Project and the Campaign Legal Center, the report showcases local input from groups including Common Cause NC, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Disability Rights North Carolina, Democracy North Carolina and the North Carolina Black Alliance. It’s coordinated by the Institute for Southern Studies and the North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections.

“North Carolina has a proud history of leadership in promoting measures to improve our elections and democracy,” Executive Director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections Melissa Price Kromm said in a news release for the publication of the report. “Unfortunately, our state has lost ground in recent years. Today, North Carolina has an opportunity to once again be a leader in strengthening democracy.”

Here are some of the main policy proposals:

Voting

  • Improving voter registration with same-day registration and automatic voter registration. The report said that automatic voter registration saves money and helps keep voter rolls up to date. In addition, the state should implement the system in such a way that protects the privacy of domestic violence survivors’ addresses, Currently, the report suggests, North Carolina has more personally identifiable information in voter registration records than any other state.
  • Stopping voter purges based on inactivity or undeliverable mail. “The risk of erroneous purges outweighs any benefit to the integrity of elections,” the report cautioned, citing more than 5,000 provisional ballots cast in November of 2020.
  • Joining the national Electronic Registration Information Center database, which the report claims to be better equipped to track and contact voters who moved across states.
  • Ensuring displaced people’s equal opportunity to vote.
  • Expanding student access to voting by providing on-campus polling places at public colleges and universities and working with private institutions to implement similar measures.
  • Making Election Day a public holiday.
  • Securing funding and improve staffing for local elections.

Redistricting

  • Urging the state to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, in which states agree to award their electoral college votes to the winner of the general election nationwide. At present, 15 states and the District of Columbia with 196 electoral votes have signed on to the compact. It would go into effect once that number reaches 270.
  • Avoiding partisan gerrymandering by reforming the redistricting process. Though declared unconstitutional by the state court after the Supreme Court refused to weigh in, partisan gerrymandering will remain a part of the landscape unless and until permanent reform like the “Fair Maps Act” (which proposed a commission composed of members of the public to independently draw maps) is enacted, the report says.

Campaign finance reform

  • Joining other states to petition for the overturn of Citizens United v. FEC, which eliminated the cap on the amount independent committees can spend on “electioneering” (i.e. media ad buys) as long as there’s no coordination with candidates’ committees.
  • Strengthening coordination laws. The report notes that sometimes candidate and independent expenditure committees circumvent federal restrictions on coordination and contribution limits by hiring the same firm for campaign services and sharing campaign materials.
  • Increasing public financing for political races. The report highlights the past success of the state’s now-repealed “voter-owned election” programs for judicial elections and certain council of state races.

Judicial independence and accountability

  • Reverting judicial races to non-partisan. Citing the United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch’s remark at his confirmation hearing that “There’s no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge,” the report recommends depoliticizing judicial races to conform with the predominant method used for judicial elections in other states. North Carolina is one of just seven states with partisan elections for the appellate division of the state court.
  • Regulating judges’ recusal by banning judicial candidates from asking potential donors for contribution and enhancing conflict of interest rules. Judicial ethics rules in North Carolina have not been updated to keep pace with the heightened political tension and the growing role of money in these races, the report says.
  • Creating a gubernatorial judicial nominating system for vacancies. The report referenced a 2016 report by the Brennan Center underscoring the lack of representation and diversity of judicial actors in the communities they serve in North Carolina.

Read the report in full here.

In defeat for Berger and Moore, federal lawsuit on N.C. voter ID law will proceed without their intervention

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In a defeat for North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday against the lawmakers’ effort to intervene in a lawsuit testing North Carolina’s 2018 Voter ID law. Most Court of Appeals cases are handled by three-judge panels, but in this case, the court acted en banc with all 15 judges participating after a rehearing. The vote was 9-6.

The suit, filed by NC NAACP, challenged the constitutionality of the Republican-backed voter ID law (SB 824) enacted by legislators in the last month of lame duck period of the Republican supermajority in December 2018, following an override of Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.

The law requires most voters to produce an unexpired photo ID when casting their ballot or cast a provisional ballot instead.

The plaintiffs argued that the law would have a disparate impact on communities of color, and would amount to “effective denial of the franchise and dilution of minority voting strength”– a violation of the Voting Rights Act. In response, Moore and Berger asked the court for permission to litigate on the state’s behalf, noting Attorney General Josh Stein’s opposition to the law.

In 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs denied two consecutive requests by state House and Senate leaders to directly intervene in the case. She concluded that Moore and Berger failed to show that the Attorney General’s office has demonstrated a “strong showing of inadequacy.” In the ruling, Biggs cited unnecessary delays that could be caused by the intervention. She did allow Moore and Berger to file amicus briefs expressing their views on the law. Biggs also granted the plaintiff’s motion to enjoin the law from being enacted.

In August 2020, however, a three-judge Fourth Circuit panel found that Biggs erred in denying the legislative leaders’ petition to intervene and in December, another three-judge panel also vacated her ruling that blocked the enforcement of the voter ID law, saying that voting rights groups are not likely going to succeed in showing the law’s discriminatory intent in the claim regarding the merits of the law. The judges also highlighted the bipartisanship and voter support of the bill.

The Monday decision only affects the intervention claim and reaffirmed Biggs’ ruling. Writing for the majority, Judge Pamela Harris stated that Berger and Moore “have a right to intervene under Rule 24(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure only if a federal court first finds that the Attorney General is inadequately representing that same interest, in dereliction of his statutory duties – a finding that would be ‘extraordinary.’ After reviewing the district court’s careful evaluation of the Attorney General’s litigation conduct, we are convinced that the court did not abuse its discretion in declining to make that extraordinary finding here.”

In a dissenting opinion joined by four other judges, Judge Marvin Quattlebaum wrote: “With no intent to disparage the Attorney General, I see no reason he is either the “most natural” agent to defend S.B. 824 — a law that he has publicly opposed— or is more familiar with the matters of public concern that led to its passage in the first place as opposed to the Leaders.”

The trial on the merits was delayed pending on the procedural decision on intervention. A separate lawsuit challenging the law was heard by a three-judge panel in state court in April. A judgment has not been issued.

N.C. Senate votes to allow municipalities to postpone 2021 elections due to census delays

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To avoid using outdated maps that don’t truly reflect the makeup of the local populations, cities in North Carolina would have a chance to delay 2021 municipal elections more efficiently under a bill approved by the state Senate today.

The bill (SB 722) seeks to give cities the authority to delay these elections without getting individual approval from the General Assembly through resolutions. The vote to approve the measure was unanimous.

The decennial census data for redistricting won’t be released until mid-August, making it impossible for redistricting to take place and take effect before the filing deadline in July for 2021 elections required by law.

The bill would affect 36 municipalities that use population-based electoral districts in elections slated in 2021, according to a blog post by UNC School of Government Professor Robert Joyce. Cities, where council members are elected city-wide, wouldn’t be affected.

Joyce noted that failure to adopt new maps is a violation of the Constitution. However, the Constitution never specified the census as the data source for redistricting, nor did North Carolina state statutes.

A list of cities that have population-based districts set to hold municipal elections in 2021. Screenshot of blog post by Robert Joyce.

Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican and co-sponsor of the bill, explained that the measure offers solutions to the current law by moving the deadlines on a set schedule.

The bill would postpone the deadline for the affected cities to complete redistricting for municipal elections to November 17 of this year. The filing period for candidates would be delayed and run from noon on Dec. 6 till noon on Dec. 17.

If cities fail to adopt new maps by the November deadline, legislators proposed to give them another one-month extension to complete the process by Dec. 17, pushing the filing period between Jan. 3 and Jan. 7 in 2022. Then, voting is set to begin in March of 2022.

SB 722 proposed changes to the filing deadlines and election dates for city council races originally scheduled in 2021.

Wake County Board of Elections member Gerry Cohen told Policy Watch that postponing the election may actually lead to a higher voter turnout. “Raleigh could indeed have a higher turnout voting at the same time on March 8 with a US Senate primary than it would have with a standalone election Oct. 5.”

Daniel, together with Sen. Paul Newton and Sen. Ralph Hise, the three co-chairs of the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee, where the bill was first heard and approved, co-sponsored the bill.

The bill incorporates language that allows registration any time between the first and second primary for 2022 elections only, bringing the state in compliance with the National Voter Registration Act.

The bill, not subject to the General Assembly’s already expired “crossover deadline,” now heads to the House.

State Board of Elections votes to reappoint executive director Karen Brinson Bell to new two-year term

The North Carolina State Board of Elections reappointed executive director Karen Brinson Bell for another two-year term, on a party-line 3–2 vote at a meeting Friday. She has served as the head of the state agency tasked with administering elections and campaign finance compliance since June 1, 2019.

North Carolina experienced historic levels of voter turnout during Brinson Bell’s tenure. More than 5.5 million voted out of 7.3 million registered in the 2020 election, marking a 75% turnout rate. This made North Carolina one of the leading states in voter turnout, according to the United States Elections Project. More than 1.3 million individuals in the state requested absentee ballots and the number of ballots cast by mail exceeded one million, another state record, data from the board show.

Karen Brinson Bell

“It is not lost on me what a privilege and responsibility it is to ensure all North Carolinians are able to exercise their right to vote,” Brinson Bell said in a statement. “I will continue to work with State Board staff and the 100 county boards of elections to conduct secure, accessible, and fair elections for all eligible voters.”

However, Brinson Bell came under attack by Republican legislators at a Senate committee hearing in March over the board’s settlement of a lawsuit brought by voting rights groups. One of the main changes that resulted from the settlement was an extension of the absentee mail-in deadline from three days past Election Day to nine. The board also sought to modify rules last year to eliminate the witness requirement on absentee ballots as a means of preventing the spread of COVID-19, but ultimately reversed the change after a federal judge upheld the requirement.

At the time, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement the board “colluded with the ‘opposing’ side of a lawsuit funded by national Democrats and agreed to a consent order that violates North Carolina election laws.”

As Policy Watch reported previously, state House and Senate Republicans have filed two bills this session that would require House and Senate leaders to sign off on settlements negotiated by the Attorney General. The Senate voted 28-21 along party lines to approve SB 360. The bill was sponsored by the three co-chairs of the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee, including Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke and Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, who questioned and pressured Brinson Bell at the committee’s meeting. The House version HB 606 was passed 60-48 in a partisan split vote earlier this month and referred to Senate Rules.

Brinson Bell served as director for the Transylvania County Board of Elections from 2011 to 2015. Prior to that, she was a district elections technician for the board, according to a press release from the board.

Brinson Bell was appointed to the directorship in 2019 in a similar partisan 3-2 vote not long after the board went through a series of restructurings as a result of litigation between Gov. Roy Cooper and the legislature. The five members of the board are appointed by the Governor.

Brinson Bell’s new term will end May 15, 2023.