Challengers of new NC voting regulations want 2014 trial; state officials push for delay

ablythe@newsobserver.comDecember 10, 2013 

VOTING6-NE-110612-HLL

While some Durham voters at Pearsontown Elementary precinct 34-1 followed the party line and others split their tickets during voting at 11am Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, Reid Pressley, 3, found a line of his own to play while waiting for his mom, Jennifer Socey, second from left, to finish voting. Pearsontown Chief Judge Jo Ann Pennix said that of the SE Durham precinct's 3700 registered voters approximatley 1700 had voted in the previous two weeks.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com

— Parties who are a gulf apart over what laws should be in place to ensure fair and open elections are just as widely divided about how quickly a lawsuit challenging new voter laws should be heard in federal court.

On Thursday, attorneys for the NAACP, League of Women Voters, the ACLU of North Carolina and other voter rights advocates will gather in a federal courtroom in Winston-Salem to talk about one early point of contention – whether the trial will happen before or after the 2014 elections.

Attorneys representing Gov. Pat McCrory, the N.C. Board of Elections and other state officials have laid out a proposed schedule in a report to the federal court, suggesting that a two- to three-week trial could be held no sooner than the summer of 2015.

But the organizations challenging the extensive changes to North Carolina’s voting rules signed into law by McCrory this summer want their arguments heard much sooner.

They are pushing for trial before the midterm elections on Nov. 4, 2014.

The League of Women Voters suggests a trial in mid-August, arguing that such a timetable would give counties the needed time to reinstate early voting and same-day registration by Election Day if the court agreed.

The state NAACP has asked for an even earlier trial – no later than June.

“Our basic position is that the people have a right to vote, and any impediment on the vote is unconstitutional and unwarranted,” said Irving Joyner, a Durham lawyer representing the state NAACP.

Chris Brook, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union North Carolina Legal Foundation, one of the law groups representing the League of Women Voters, echoed those remarks.

“We believe these voting restrictions that have been put in place need to be reviewed for their legality and their constitutionality before they go into effect,” Brook said. “We just believe no person’s right to vote should be unduly burdened.”

Thomas Farr, a private attorney representing the State Board of Elections and lawyer with the Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart firm in Raleigh, declined to comment when reached Tuesday about the scheduling matter.

In the report filed in federal court, the attorneys for both sides mentioned two telephone conferences in recent weeks, one on Nov. 15 and another on Nov. 23.

Attorneys for the governor, state elections board and other officials argue in the scheduling report that it would be unrealistic to think all the information pertinent to the lawsuit could be exchanged and preparations could be made for experts expected to be called as witnesses by the summer of 2014.

More than 30 attorneys are listed as counsel in the three lawsuits filed soon after the Republican-led General Assembly made extensive changes to North Carolina’s elections law.

The changes include a voter ID provision that goes into effect for the 2016 elections and requires voters to show valid, government-issued IDs before casting ballots. Student IDs from state universities are not on the list of acceptable forms of identification.

The changes also include the elimination of seven days of early voting, the elimination of same-day registration during early voting, and the prohibition against counting provisional ballots cast when a voter shows up at the wrong polling place.

Advocates of the changes contend the measures are necessary to prevent the possibility of voter fraud.

Critics argue the provisions are designed to suppress the votes of Democrats, particularly African-Americans, in a state where few voter fraud cases have been brought. Critics also argue that decreasing the number of days for which voters can cast an early ballot is a measure designed to curtail the black vote, which historically has favored the modern Democrats.

African-Americans are 23 percent of registered voters in North Carolina, but made up 29 percent of early voters in 2012, 30 percent of those who cast out-of-precinct ballots, 34 percent of the 318,000 registered voters without state-issued IDs, and 41 percent of those who used same-day registration.

Republicans defend the changes to early voting by noting that counties are required to provide the same number of hours for early voting but in a fewer number of days.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against North Carolina in October arguing that four key provisions of the state’s sweeping election law changes should be blocked on grounds that they would have a discriminatory effect on African-American voters.

The Justice Department, however, agrees with attorneys for the state on the scheduling conflict. The federal officials do not believe, according to the lawsuit, that all the information pertinent to the legal challenge can be exchanged in time to air the case in court before the 2014 elections.

That leaves another option, though.

Attorneys for the voters and civil rights organizations arguing against the election law changes could seek preliminary relief from the courts that halts the changes from going into effect while the lawsuit pends.

“We'll just have to see what the court says and go from there,” Joyner said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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