Politics & Government

US judge to NC counties: restore names of voters recently purged from rolls

Voters wait patiently in line to vote at University City Regional Library Thursday morning. Thursday is the first day of early voting in Mecklenburg County.
Voters wait patiently in line to vote at University City Regional Library Thursday morning. Thursday is the first day of early voting in Mecklenburg County. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

A U.S. District Court judge ruled on Friday that three counties must restore names to voter rolls that were part of recent mass purges.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs came in response to a lawsuit filed Monday by the state NAACP. In the lawsuit, seeking an emergency halt to voter roll purges in Beaufort, Moore and Cumberland counties, NAACP representatives and several affected voters described the practice as an effort to suppress the African-American vote.

At issue was whether the North Carolina law that allows individual voters to challenge anyone’s registration violates the National Voter Registration Act, which “prohibits the mass removal of voters from the rolls within the 90 days prior to the election.”

The organization also contended that county election boards did not follow proper notification or hearing procedures for the challenges.

“(T)here is little question that the County Boards’ process of allowing third parties to challenge hundreds and, in Cumberland County, thousands of voters within 90 days before the 2016 General Election constitutes the type of ‘systematic’ removal prohibited by the (National Voter Registration Act),” Biggs, an appointee of President Barack Obama, wrote in her ruling ordering the restoration of the removed names.

The decision prohibits more challenges in the three counties for this election.

State Board of Elections officials, who have been required to change directions many times this year after court rulings in state and federal court, said they intended to do what they could to meet the order by Tuesday.

“We are working quickly to establish the procedures necessary to comply with the court order between now and Election Day,” Kim Strach, executive director of the state elections board, said Friday.

The elections officials advised all counties to stop accepting challenges for this election.

The cases of some of the voters have been the subject of national attention, drawing an invitation to one of the affected voters from the nation’s first black president.

Obama discussed the experience of Grace Bell Hardison, a 100-year-old Belhaven resident, in his speech in Chapel Hill on Wednesday afternoon. He invited her to join him in Fayetteville on Friday. Her family said she was unable to go but thrilled to be mentioned.

Hardison, who has lived in Beaufort County her entire life and rarely missed an opportunity to vote, learned from her nephew recently that her name was one of dozens that had been targeted for purging from the county’s voter rolls before the elections.

Though Hardison voted in the 2015 municipal elections in her Beaufort County town, a Republican named Shane Hubers challenged her eligibility because a mailing sent out to Hardison by a mayoral candidate last year was returned. Hardison gets her mail at a post office box, not her house, as has been the case for years.

Though Hardison’s nephew successfully defeated the challenge, the centenarian feared that she would be turned away from the polls on Election Day, as have others from Beaufort, Moore and Cumberland counties.

Mass mailings in Cumberland County led to nearly 4,000 challenges there.

A series of Moore County challenges were prompted by N. Carol Wheeldon, secretary of the Moore County Republican Party and a volunteer with The Voter Integrity Project, whose director Jay DeLancy says he wants to reduce the potential for voter fraud and show that voter rolls across the state are not purged as often as he would like to remove people who have moved or died.

After calling an emergency hearing on Wednesday in federal court in Winston-Salem and hearing some of the evidence in the case, Biggs told county attorneys who had appeared before her that she was “horrified” by the “insane” process by which voters could be removed from the rolls without their knowledge, according to The Associated Press.

“It almost looks like a cattle call, the way people are being purged,” Biggs said. “This sounds like something that was put together in 1901,” when the state used Jim Crow laws to prevent black citizens from casting a ballot.

“It is without question that Individual Plaintiffs have made a clear showing that they will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction,” Biggs stated in her memorandum and ruling. “The General Election is a few days away and unless Individual Plaintiffs who were purged from the voter rolls are reinstated, they will not be allowed to vote and have that vote counted. Denying an eligible voter her constitutional right to vote and to have that vote counted will always constitute irreparable harm.”

Long shadow of Voting Rights Act decision

The questions about voter roll purges and other laws and efforts that the state NAACP has described as attempts to disenfranchise black voters have happened in the run-up to the first presidential election held since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

In June 2013, the country’s highest court, in a 5-4 ruling that broke down along ideological lines, freed nine mostly Southern states from having to get approval from the federal government before changing election laws.

In the wake of that decision, North Carolina enacted sweeping changes to its election procedures in a 2013 law that has since been struck down by the federal courts as unconstitutional. Federal appellate judges said the law was designed with “almost surgical precision” to weaken the black vote.

Late last week in a different voting registration case filed in North Carolina, Biggs granted preliminary relief requiring state election officials to take actions to protect eligible voters improperly left off voter rolls after attempting to register through state Division of Motor Vehicles offices and state agencies that take applications for food stamps, Medicaid and other public assistance.

Action NC, Democracy North Carolina, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and three North Carolina voters sued the state in December contending that North Carolina has failed to comply with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, or the so-called “motor voter” law, that requires states to offer voter registration at motor vehicle agencies and public assistance and disability offices.

Though there has not been a trial yet on the challenges under the motor voter law, Biggs, in issuing her emergency order for the 2016 elections, found that DMV had been slow in transferring voter registration records to the State Board of Elections and did not follow up with people who turned in blank registration forms but never said they didn’t want to register.

“Voter enfranchisement cannot be sacrificed when a citizen provides the state the necessary information to register to vote but the state turns its own procedures into a vehicle to burden that right,” Biggs said in her order for temporary relief. “It does not matter whether it is done intentionally or through human or technological errors in processing a completed voter registration application. Either scenario could lead to a voter’s exclusion from the voter rolls on Election Day.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1