It’s fitting that in what appear to be the last days of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s tenure that he is waiting for a recount of Durham County votes. For it is in that heavily African-American county that he now hopes some major instance of fraud or error will emerge and he will pull back ahead of Democrat Roy Cooper, who passed him by several thousand votes late on Election Day when Durham reported results delayed by mechanical problems.
The symbolism is powerful.
The governor who signed one of the nation’s most restrictive election laws – a law that federal judges said sought to depress African-American votes “with almost surgical precision” – now is on the edge of being ousted by those very voters.
When he signed the bill, McCrory called the new restrictions “common sense.” He and other Republicans repeated the simplistic refrain about needing to present a driver’s license for so many lesser things, so why not present one to vote? And same-day registration could lead to ineligible voters voting. And reducing the days for early voting would save local governments the expense of extended elections. And even something about honoring Sundays by not having polls open.
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They never explained why the new law did not allow photo IDs from colleges, state agencies or private employers. They never showed abuses tied to same-day registration. They couldn’t account for the value of making it harder to vote with fewer early voting days. All they could say was it was common sense.
What it was – and what the new restrictions in other states are – is uncommon cynicism. Under the guise of protecting the vote, the restrictions deprive people of the vote. And not just any people, but specifically low-income people, especially low-income African Americans who overwhelmingly vote Democratic. With that, partisan gamesmanship morphs into racism.
McCrory hated that charge. He announced himself a tolerant man, he displayed an amiable character, but he had put himself in line with segregationists who used poll taxes and intimidation to keep African Americans from their right to shape their government and their lives by casting a vote.
Now the governor waits for Durham to reveal the fraud he thinks the new restrictions would have prevented but for federal judges throwing out the voting law. But the fraud will not be there and McCrory will have to go.
McCrory’s campaign and the state Republican Party did all they could to avert the governor’s defeat. They combed through the returns aggressively, filing challenges in dozens of counties. At times, they accused innocent people of fraud. Now they’re recounting Durham’s votes without any basis except innuendo that the county’s white liberals and minorities might be careless with the process to their own advantage.
After nearly a month of scrutinizing the returns statewide, the fabled fraud has not been found. Even without photo ID, there’s no sign of voters pretending to be someone else. Now the conservative John W. Pope Civitas Institute has filed a federal lawsuit challenging more than 90,000 votes cast by people who registered and voted the same day. Good luck with that. Bob Hall of the elections watchdog group Democracy North Carolina says same-day registrations were disproportionately Republican this year and the same-day registration process is “just as reliable if not more reliable than the regular registration process.”
McCrory’s misadventure into voter suppression is part of a wider story about the 2016 election. Presidential votes are being recounted in Wisconsin, where Donald Trump won by the thinnest of margins. But this autopsy of the vote is finding no sign of fraud. Nor is it likely to be found in possible recounts in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Where the actual deceit occurred isn’t in who voted, but who didn’t. Fourteen states had new voting restrictions in place for the first time in 2016, including Wisconsin’s new photo ID requirement. Milwaukee saw a decline of about 41,000 voters in the 2016 election compared with 2012, with the poorest areas showing the sharpest declines. Trump won the state by 22,177 votes.
“We saw some of the greatest declines were in the districts we projected would have the most trouble with voter ID requirements,” Neil Albrecht, executive director of the city’s Election Commission, told the Chicago Tribune.
Photo ID is hardly the only barrier. Since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states no longer subject to federal scrutiny have reduced polling places. That means some voters must travel further and waiting times get longer. A study by the Leadership Conference, a civil and human rights coalition, studied 381 counties previously covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. In those counties, the 868 polling places have been closed since the high court ruled.
The recounts of 2016 show the absence of fraud and the damage done by new laws aimed at a non-existent threat. Unfortunately, the lesson learned by North Carolina lawmakers is that the restrictions should be reimposed because, well, McCrory’s campaign made so many claims of fraud.
Whatever that is, it’s not common sense.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com