Courts & the Law, Legislature, News, Special Session, Voting

Senate Bill 4 touted as bipartisan effort; Democrats told special session not the right time to amend

Republican Senators touted their bipartisan effort bill Thursday morning as a way for both parties to work together, but brushed off Democrat Senators’ requests to add an amendment to create a bipartisan redistricting committee.

Senate Bill 4 is a complex, four-part, 25-page document that was introduced late Wednesday during the General Assembly’s fourth special session of the year. It seeks to:

  • Create a new, bipartisan agency: the Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement that consolidates elections, campaign finance, lobbying and ethics.
  • Reestablish partisan elections for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
  • Modify the appellate court process.
  • Allow outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory to fill a vacancy on the Industrial Commission.

The bill was discussed at a nearly two-hour committee meeting Thursday. Democrats didn’t oppose the bill in its entirety and seemed to like the idea of a bipartisan Board of Elections, but expressed concern about the timing of the bill and said they would prefer to work on it in the long session.

Sen. Floyd B. McKissick Jr., D-Durham, Granville, said the independent Board of Elections had been around a long time and it appeared the only reason to move on the bill now was political in nature, to take away an opportunity for incoming Gov.-elect Roy Cooper. He also asked why there wasn’t anything in the bill about bipartisan redistricting after Sen. Tommy Tucker (R-Union) told the group the bill would be one step toward that goal.

“You don’t eat a steak in one bite,” Tucker replied, adding that he wouldn’t have objections to working on something regarding bipartisan redistricting in the future but that there wasn’t enough time in the special session to do so.

Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Bertie, Chowan, Edgecombe, Hertford, Martin, Northampton, Terrell and Washington, asked to introduce an amendment to add a bipartisan redistricting committee. Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, asked her to wait until later. She did, and the amendment was promptly voted against with little discussion.

“This would not be the appropriate time for this particular amendment,” Rucho said.

The group also discussed the other parts of Senate Bill 4, with Democrats again questioning the timing of it all, and Republicans insisting there were good reasons behind everything.

“There is no other time to run this,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford and Yancey. “It’s a great piece of legislation and I think people are just grasping at straws to see what the opposition is.”

Sen. Jane Smith, D-Columbus and Robeson, said the legislation seemed drastic to pass in such a short amount of time, and that she was concerned this was all being done in a special session that all legislators were not even aware was going to happen.

McKissick told Republicans that if there was more willingness to work together, as opposed to having been excluded from the process to begin with, there may be a different tone moving forward.

The bill moved forward to the Senate Finance Committee, where it is currently being discussed. There is no fiscal note attached to the bill, so it is unclear how much it would cost taxpayers. A fiscal note was requested at the finance meeting, but Senators said they would not hold up the bill if the note was not available in time.

Courts & the Law, News, Voting

Same court that struck down NC voter ID law upholds Virginia’s, notes difference in case facts

The same court that struck down North Carolina’s voter identification law just months ago ruled Tuesday to uphold Virginia’s law, though it is noted in the court document that the facts of the cases “are in no way” alike.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit of Appeals ruled in Lee v. Virginia Board of Elections that Virginia’s law does not place an undue burden on minority voting and there was no evidence to suggest racially discriminatory intent in the law’s enactment.

Virginia has required voters to present identification in all elections since 1996, but until 2012, residents without an ID could still vote if they signed a document affirming their identity. Eventually, legislation was passed by the Republican-led General Assembly to require a photo ID from all voters.

Anyone without a photo ID can cast a provisional ballot to be cured within a few days with a proper ID.

While noting that Virginia’s law in question added another layer of inconvenience to the voting process, judges said it affected all voters equally. On the argument that the legislature intentionally discriminated on the basis of race and age by passing the law, “the court found that the evidence failed ‘to show any departure from normal legislative procedures.'”

In its conclusion, the court said its decision is not sweeping of all election rules that result in a disparity in the convenience of voting.

As we noted in North Carolina State Conference of NAACP v. McCrory, 831 F.3d 204, 241 (4th Cir. 2016), “it cannot be that states must forever tip-toe around certain voting provisions” that would have more effect on the voting patterns of one group than another. Rather, [this case] asks us to evaluate whether the Virginia process has diminished the opportunity of the protected class to participate in the electoral process. If Virginia had required voters to present identifications without accommodating citizens who lacked them, the rule might arguably deprive some voters of an equal opportunity to vote. But where, as here, Virginia allows everyone to vote and provides free photo IDs to persons without them, we conclude that SB 1256 provides every voter an equal opportunity to vote and thus does not violate § 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

In contrast to the Virginia case, the Court of Appeals that struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law “concluded that, based on the totality of circumstances, the North Carolina process targeted black voters with ‘almost surgical precision.'” You can read more about that decision here.

Courts & the Law, News, Voting

Civitas withdraws request to halt election count, moves forward with federal lawsuit

The Civitas Institute has withdrawn its request to halt an official election count until same-day registration votes went through a mail verification process.

“Our decision to drop the request for the temporary injunction avoids any continued disruption to the conclusion of the election, given the political realities,” said Civitas President Francis De Luca. “It is important to focus on the core issue of the suit, which seeks to ensure the equal treatment of voters under the law. To count ballots without proper verification of same-day registration information discriminates by treating one class of voters differently from another and ignores federal and state laws. We hope all can now focus on the important issue of voter verification. The federal lawsuit will move forward.”

Civitas claims in the 10-page lawsuit that voter registration applications submitted through the same-day registration process violate North Carolina law because they cannot be completely verified until at least nine days after the Board certifies election results.

The announcement to withdraw the injunction was made Monday, the same day Gov. Pat McCrory conceded the gubernatorial election to Roy Cooper.

Courts & the Law, News, Voting

Oral argument in NC racial gerrymandering case to be heard at US Supreme Court today

The Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral argument today in two cases alleging racial gerrymandering, including McCrory v. Harris.

SCOTUS Blog posted a very thorough argument preview on both cases last week.

When creating new legislative maps, some states say that they feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the Voting Rights Act requires states with large minority populations to consider race when drawing district lines. On the other hand, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution bars states from making race the predominant factor when they draw districts.

McCrory v. Harris challenges two congressional district maps that the state’s legislature drew. The case deals specifically with districts 1 and 12, which SCOTUS Blog notes has been at the heart of four earlier racial gerrymandering cases at the court.

A three-judge panel ruled in February that the North Carolina Congressional District map was drawn with racial bias. The argument preview describes:

Defending the districts, North Carolina Republicans maintain that the redistricting of NC-12 was not about race, but was instead part of an effort to maximize the number of congressional districts that would elect Republican candidates. Indeed, they emphasize, the consultant who drew the plan only consulted political data from the 2008 presidential election and did not consider racial demographics at all when drawing the district. And because of the close correlation between race and political party, they argue, drawing legislative districts to account for the voters’ preferred political parties can result in district lines that correlate with race. When that happens, they continue, the plaintiffs must “do more than show that race is a possible explanation for a district’s lines.” Rather, they must demonstrate that the legislature “actually subordinated traditional race-neutral districting principles” to race.

Read more

News, Voting

State Board of Elections instructs local boards to dismiss McCrory protests challenging voter eligibility

The State Board of Elections has instructed all local boards to dismiss all protests filed by Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign “that merely disputes the eligibility of a voter.”

The announcement was made late Monday night and an order was published with further instructions.

A protest alleging the occurrence of an election law violation that affected votes sufficient in number to change the outcome of a single-county contest concerns the manner in which votes were counted or tabulated, and therefore such protest must be resolved prior to county canvass as required by [the law]. A protest that does not allege an election law violation regarding a sufficient number of votes to change the outcome of a single-county contest shall not delay the county canvass procedures since the county may not retrieve and discount such ballots. In no case shall the county board delay the timely hearing and decision on a protest timely filed.

Local elections boards are to consider claims disputing a voter’s eligibility as voter challenges instead of protests. If a local board finds a violation occurred that did not affect enough ballots to change the outcome of any single-county contest, it is instructed to forward its findings to the State Board, according to the order.

No county board may retrieve and discount a ballot cast by an unqualified voter unless a challenge was timely brought under Article 8, or the State Board or a county board has found that ineligible voters participated in numbers sufficient to change the outcome of the election.

The order goes on to state that local boards must preserve the due process rights of all voters, including adequate notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard.

Democratic challenger Roy Cooper is leading Republican McCrory in the state’s gubernatorial race by more than 9,600 votes, but the current governor’s campaign has raised allegations of voter fraud and has asked for a recount of ballots in Durham.

The State Board will meet at 4 p.m. Wednesday to hear the recount request.