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NORTH CAROLINA

Candidates and Organizations

Voter Suppression Efforts in North Carolina

MARCH 2020

• North Carolina: North Carolina's Board of Elections has asked Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-run legislature to make a number of changes that would make absentee voting easier. The board's recommendations include:

  • allowing voters to request absentee ballots online, or to return applications via email or fax;

  • relaxing the state's requirement that absentee ballots be witnessed by two people or a notary, either by reducing the requirement to one witness or eliminating it entirely;

  • having the state provide postage-paid return envelopes for absentee ballots; and

  • making Election Day in November a state holiday so that a wider part of the workforce would be able to serve as poll workers.

• North Carolina: On Tuesday, North Carolina's Court of Appeals rejected Republicans' request for all 15 judges on the court to review of a February ruling by three judges that had overturned a lower court ruling and temporarily blocked the GOP's voter ID statute. The case is currently proceeding on the merits, with plaintiffs arguing that Republicans acted with the intent to discriminate against black voters in enacting their voter ID law. GOP legislators could appeal to the state Supreme Court, but given its 6-1 Democratic majority, a reversal appears unlikely.

Earlier this year, a federal court issued its own preliminary injunction in a separate case ahead of an upcoming trial, and a panel of three judges on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling on Friday to allow GOP legislative leaders to intervene as defendants.

Democratic state Attorney General Josh Stein had previously announced he would wait until after the March 3 primaries to appeal the federal ruling (Stein has a general obligation to defend state laws in most instances), so the voter ID requirement was already on hold in this month's vote. However, this latest state-court decision means the law could remain suspended for the November general election while the case proceeds.

• North Carolina: An African American voting rights advocacy group has filed a lawsuit in state court arguing that a bipartisan 2019 law to tighten absentee ballot requests in the wake of 2018's GOP election fraud scandal violates the state constitution. That scandal centered around a Republican operative who tampered with absentee ballots to fraudulently cast votes for the GOP candidate in the 9th Congressional District and may have discarded votes cast for the Democrat. In response, lawmakers near-unanimously enacted measures as part of a larger package of reforms to prevent a repeat occurrence in future elections.

However, the plaintiffs argue that by restricting who may assist voters with requesting an absentee ballot to only relatives, it prevents get-out-the-vote campaigns from encouraging absentee voting and therefore violates the state constitution's guarantee of the right to vote.

• North Carolina: The good-government group Common Cause has asked the North Carolina Supreme Court to review a recent state Court of Appeals ruling that rejected the organization's challenge to a series of power grabs Republicans pushed through during the lame-duck session of the legislature following the 2016 elections. Last month, the appellate court rebuffed the plaintiffs' argument that the GOP's legislative blitzkrieg was executed so quickly that it violated the state constitution's guarantee of the people's right to instruct their legislature.

As we've previously explained, the case has its origins in the 2016 elections, when Democratic Roy Cooper ousted Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and broke the GOP's grip on state government. In response, Republicans passed a law that removed the governor’s power to appoint a majority on the state Board of Elections and its county-level counterparts. McCrory’s administration had used its control over the boards to cut early voting and remove polling places from college campuses and heavily black communities. Removing Cooper’s power to appoint new majorities blocked Democrats from reversing those cuts.

Republicans also passed another law subjecting Cooper's cabinet appointees to confirmation by the GOP-dominated state Senate, a burden they had not placed on McCrory. Furthermore, they slashed the number of executive branch appointees from 1,500 to just 425, a reversal from the increase in such positions Republicans had pushed through after McCrory replaced his Democratic predecessor in 2012.

This madcap legislative session also saw the GOP transfer powers from the state Board of Education, whose members are chosen by the governor, to the state's superintendent of public instruction, a Republican elected official. In addition, they eliminated the governor’s ability to appoint members to the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees, instead granting that power to the legislature itself.

The Board of Elections power grab was eventually struck down, passed by the GOP once more and then struck down yet again multiple times, but Cooper finally was able to appoint a Democratic majority after the 2018 elections. However, most of the GOP's other power grabs are still in effect, as is another provision of the lame-duck legislation that made elections for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals elections partisan again after a period during which they were nonpartisan (a move that backfired on Republicans in 2018).

If the Supreme Court hears the case and the plaintiffs prevail, all of these other changes would also be struck down. The high court has a 6-1 Democratic majority, though that does not offer a guarantee of a different outcome, particularly seeing as the appeals court panel that heard the case was bipartisan.

FEBRUARY 2020

• North Carolina: On Tuesday, a panel of three judges on North Carolina's Court of Appeals unanimously overturned a lower court's ruling and ordered it to block Republicans' voter ID law until the case can be decided on the merits. The appellate court ruled that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in demonstrating that Republicans had enacted the law with the unconstitutional intent of discriminating against black voters.

Earlier this year, a federal court issued its own preliminary injunction in a separate case ahead of an upcoming trial. Democratic state Attorney General Josh Stein previously announced he would wait until after the March 3 primaries to appeal the federal ruling (Republicans aren't party to that case, but Stein has a general obligation to defend state laws in most instances), so the voter ID requirement was already on hold for next month's vote. However, this latest state-court ruling could suspend the law through the November general election, too.

A second court has temporarily blocked North Carolina’s new voter identification law on the argument that it discriminates against African Americans. The ruling reduces the likelihood that the rule will be in effect in a key swing state during November’s elections.

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JANUARY 2020

North Carolina: Republican legislative leaders have asked the federal court that recently blocked their voter ID law to stay its decision pending appeal. However, these GOP leaders aren't defendants in this case, and Democratic state Attorney General Josh Stein has said over Republican opposition that he would delay appealing until after the March 3 primary to avoid confusion. But because the GOP is appealing the court's previous ruling that rejected their petition to intervene as defendants, Republicans are now arguing for a stay on the grounds that their appeal to intervene is still pending.

 

• North Carolina: A federal district court has issued a preliminary injunction blocking North Carolina's GOP-backed voter ID requirement, finding that the statute was likely enacted with discriminatory intent. A trial is expected to take place in the coming months.

This ruling comes three years after a previous voter ID law was struck down for what a federal court described as an effort to target black voters "with almost surgical precision." Republicans responded by placing a vaguely worded constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2018 to establish a new ID requirement. After voters approved the amendment, GOP lawmakers passed a statute implementing it in the lame-duck session of the legislature, over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto.

In this latest court ruling, Judge Loretta Biggs said Republicans had sought to "circumvent" prior legal decisions. She noted that the current voter ID law excluded forms of identification that black voters were more likely to possess, such as certain types of government and public assistance IDs. She further observed that even nominally free IDs take time and access to transportation to obtain, which could be burdensome for low-income voters especially.

Democratic state Attorney General Josh Stein announced that he will appeal the ruling. However, he said he would wait until after the March 3 primary to avoid any voter confusion, noting that absentee voting is set to begin in just under two weeks. While ordinarily an attorney general is tasked with defending state laws in court, Cooper, who was Stein's predecessor, declined to appeal the 2016 ruling striking down the GOP's original voter ID law to the Supreme Court, who in turn declined GOP legislators' pleas to hear the case. Meanwhile, the state Board of Elections has already begun informing the public that ID won't be required for the primary.

In addition, the amendment itself is facing a lawsuit. In a separate case, the NAACP has argued that because the legislature was improperly constituted since its members had been elected under illegally gerrymandered maps that were later struck down by the courts, lawmakers lacked the authority to amend the constitution. A state court agreed last year and struck down the amendment, but the state Court of Appeals has stayed the ruling while GOP legislators appeal.

December 2019 Redistricting

• North Carolina: Last last month, Republicans agreed to a legal settlement that will block yet another one of their gerrymanders, this time regarding their redrawing of the district court map in Mecklenburg County.

The consent order will see Mecklenburg County, a Democratic stronghold home to Charlotte and 1.1 million people, revert to electing every judge countywide. Last year, the GOP's gerrymander had broken up that at-large election system and drawn a number of heavily white districts designed to elect Republican judges in place of black Democrats.

The plaintiffs who brought this lawsuit argued that this gerrymander violated the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against black voters. The consent order only applies to 2020 and makes no legal conclusion as to whether the 2018 redistricting was illegal, but the fact that Republicans capitulated for this election cycle suggests the plaintiffs have a strong argument on the ultimate merits of the case.

This development now means that, since Republicans won the state legislature in 2010, their gerrymanders have been invalidated once or more at literally every level of government: Congress, the legislature, county commission, city council, even school board—and now judicial districts.

Meanwhile, although state-level litigation recently concluded that resulted in North Carolina Republicans passing a new and modestly fairer congressional map, the GOP had still been pursuing a federal lawsuit seeking to revive their previous gerrymander for 2020. However, a district court judge rejected the GOP's argument, ruling that plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits. Republicans have declined to pursue this suit further, meaning the new map is final.