NC judge halts a GOP effort to stymie student vote

The victory may seem isolated, but if a Wake County Superior Court judge’s ruling prevails and Appalachian State University students get the early voting site on campus they demanded, the impact could be significant elsewhere.

The site was abandoned in 2013, when the membership of the Watauga County Board of Elections changed with new appointments by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. The changes in that board and others fit right in with Republican lawmakers’ revisions in election law that curbed early voting and created a voter ID requirement. The changes make it it harder for young people, minorities and the elderly to vote.

Those groups happen to include substantial numbers of people likely to vote Democratic.

Voter suppression laws, as they are called, are not exclusive to North Carolina, but as they did in so many cases, our state’s Republican lawmakers pushed the issue too hard and gained embarrassing national attention as a result.

Judge calls it illegal

Donald Stephens, Wake County’s senior resident Superior Court judge, saw through the gambit on the voting site and took drastic action.

“All credible evidence,” he wrote in an order, “indicates that the sole purpose of that plan was to eliminate an early voting site on campus so as to discourage student voting and, as such, it is unconstitutional.”

So Stephens ordered the Watauga County Board of Elections to include an early voting site at ASU. Bill Gilkeson, attorney for seven plaintiffs that included five students, called Stephens’ ruling “a great victory for voting rights.” Statistics show that Watauga County has the highest percentage of student voters of any county in North Carolina. Given that high rate, it’s clear why the Republican-controlled board of elections would nix an early voting site there.

There is a possible and positive side effect of the Stephens ruling: If the state challenges it in the Court of Appeals, whatever decision that court rendered would apply to other campuses, some of which also lost early voting sites. Other sites might have to be restored as well.

The U.S. Constitution is clear. In the 26th Amendment, it says that the voting rights of those who are at least 18 years old “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”

A lid on voting

In changing election laws, Republicans in the General Assembly set a tone for boards of elections controlled by their party to join in trying to put as heavy a lid on Democratic turnout as they could. It was a maneuver motivated by insecurity. The GOP doesn’t think it can maintain power on a level playing field.

Now the stage is set for legal challenges: some against the actions of boards of elections, others in opposition to the voter ID law or changes such as allowing poll watchers, which smacks of intimidation. Republican lawmakers have no one but themselves to blame for the pushback against their efforts to suppress the Democratic vote. Citizens should remember that the GOP’s assault on voting rights will cost some people their votes and all taxpayers their dollars as the state pays growing legal fees trying to justify this injustice.