When Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signs North Carolina’s sweeping new elections bill as expected this month, critics will be ready to act, too – in court.
The bill not only contains one of the nation’s strictest photo ID laws but compresses the time for early voting and ends straight-ticket balloting. It would no longer count provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct.
“I have never seen a single law that is more anti-voter,” says Penda Hair, a lawyer with the Advancement Project, a civil rights group in Washington. “North Carolina now joins a very short list of (states) that seem … motivated to stop people from voting.”
The bill that emerged in the final days of this year’s legislative session goes beyond voting changes. It limits disclosure of outside campaign spending, ends public financing for judicial races and no longer makes candidates take responsibility for their ads.
Republicans say their bill, which awaits McCrory’s signature, protects election integrity without depriving voters of their rights. Parts are similar to GOP-sponsored initiatives in other states.
“There are those out there that want to demagogue the issue,” says Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and a chief architect of the measure. “We think of it as a bill that will improve the overall election process, making it easier for the voter … (and) improve the integrity of the system.”
Like abortion, criminal justice and unemployment benefits, the elections bill was one of the session’s most contentious. And like the others, it passed along party lines. No Republican voted against the final version. No Democrat voted for it.
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, calls it “the most ambitious effort to suppress the voting of those likely to vote against the party in power in the country.” One liberal pundit said the bill “reads like a parody written for Stephen Colbert’s show.”
N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has called on McCrory to veto the bill.
“North Carolina for years has taken steps to encourage people to exercise their fundamental right to register and vote,” he said. “And this law makes registering and voting more difficult for many people.”
But Cooper, as the state’s chief lawyer, could find his office in the position of defending the bill in court.
The Advancement Project already has represented groups challenging voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Laws in both states are on hold.
Attorney Hair says her group is working with the NAACP on a possible lawsuit in North Carolina. “Our preliminary analysis is that this bill is full of legal holes and that a fair court would strike it down virtually in its entirety,” she says.
Anita Earls, executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, says her group believes the law is unconstitutional and would disproportionately hurt African-American voters.
According to state election officials, nearly 319,000 North Carolina voters – more than 40,000 in Mecklenburg County – lack a state-issued ID. Blacks make up 23 percent of voters and 34 percent of those without an ID.
The N.C. legislation came up last week at a White House meeting that brought civil rights activists together with President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Law this summer, Holder has pledged that he would try to block new state laws his department sees as discriminatory.
“All of a sudden it appears that Mr. Holder and the Justice Department are trying to find another way of taking honesty and integrity out of the voting system,” says GOP Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, a chief author of the N.C. bill. “But that’s up to the courts to decide. …We believe this law will withstand any legal challenge.”
Behind the changes
Rucho says the bill is not designed to keep people from voting. He and other Republicans say it standardizes rules throughout the state, makes it easier for local elections officials, and gives voters more options.
Though it cuts the early voting period from 17 days to 10, it requires county elections officials to maintain the same total of early voting hours that they have had in recent elections. In 2016, for example, they would have the same number of hours as they did in 2012.
That could mean expanding the hours that polling sites are open, adding more voting machines or both.
“It actually opens up more opportunities for voting in terms of the number of machines and sites,” he says. “There is no advantage of having 17 days. You can have 10 days before the election and accomplish all you want to accomplish.”
Lewis, the House member most involved in the legislation, says some provisions were in response to changes made by Democrats over the past decade, including same-day registration, which he argues complicate the process for local elections officials.
“If our motives were partisan, … they were to fix partisan actions (Democrats) had taken,” he says.
Though Democrats have benefitted from practices such as early voting, Rucho disputes those who argue that Republicans drew the bill for partisan advantage.
“How can we be doing that when everybody is living by the same rules?” he says. “There’s aren’t any special rules for Republicans and antagonistic rules for Democrats. I can’t understand how they can make that statement.”