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Voting rights advocates join forces for ballot access intervention
NC on front line of push for federal legislation
 
Published Wednesday, April 14, 2021 1:20 pm
by Herbert L. White

PHOTO | TROY HULL
Worth Williams (right) helps Tiffani Scott cast her ballot during the November 2020 election in Charlotte. Progressive activists are pushing for an expanded federal role in setting ballot access nationwide in response to Republican efforts in 47 states, including North Carolina, to roll back rules.

Voter suppression, long associated with states’ rights in the Jim Crow South, is anything but a relic of a bygone era.


More than 360 bills in 47 states have been introduced this year by GOP lawmakers – including North Carolina – that would curtail voting and eliminate mail-in ballots.

“It is a federal responsibility because many states aren’t in a position to be as defensive as we are (with the threat of a veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper), and we don’t know what the next election will bring with respect to what the majorities will look like,” said North Carolina Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat. “It is critical that we get federal legislation protecting the right to vote, and especially protecting the rights of minorities to vote because that seems to be the object.”


In voter polling conducted on behalf of the conservative-leaning John Locke Foundation, 60% of North Carolina Republicans, 43% of unaffiliated, and 20% of Democrats doubt the 2022 elections will be fair.


A pair of federal bills would restore key sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that barred racially motivated restrictions.


The For the People Act sponsored by Democrats passed the U.S. House of Representatives 220-210 with no Republican support faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, which is evenly divided between the parties. The legislation creates national standards, but GOP lawmakers oppose federal intervention in state elections.


Voting rights gained new urgency starting with the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision that invalidated Section 4 of the VRA, a federal mandate to oversee election administration in states with a history of suppression. As a result of that ruling, states can  craft their own directives and limitations.


“As we saw in Georgia and we are seeing in Texas, Arizona, North Carolina and Michigan and plenty of other states, this is a coordinated, multi-pronged attack on the freedom to vote in this country,” said former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “These Republicans may be spread out across the country, but they follow the playbook that was created by the Heritage Foundation on how to limit access to the ballot. This is a real and urgent threat to our democracy.”

The NDRC joined End Citizens United and Let America Vote Action Fund to launch a $30 million campaign to support the For the People Act in the Senate.

Another bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Enhancement Act, would codify a formula that addresses access bias. A provision would establish criteria for practices that are subject to preclearance and gives jurisdictions an opportunity to present why they shouldn’t be subject to the process. Preclearance, a cornerstone of the VRA, exposed states with a history of race-based voter intimidation and suppression to federal approval of voting laws.

The Supreme Court decision opened the door for Republican-leaning statehouses like North Carolina’s to pass a series of restrictions including a voter ID requirement, elimination of polling sites and limited voting hours.


In North Carolina, Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus), co-chair of the Senate Elections Committee, introduced two bills advocates say will improve security and trust in elections: Senate Bill 326, which would make Election Day the deadline to receive mail-in ballots and Senate Bill 360, which would block changes to election law through secret negotiations.
Supporters say S.B. 326, the Election Integrity Act, moves the deadline for absentee ballot requests up to two weeks before Election Day, making it more likely that ballots reach the Board of Elections in time.


A majority of states, including several controlled by Democrats, make Election Day the deadline for counting votes. North Carolina allows absentee ballots to be received by the Board of Elections three days later.


“Every day that passes without a declared winner just breeds suspicions and conspiracy theories in people’s minds,” Newton said. “That’s not healthy. Requiring that at least all the votes are in on Election Day helps minimize the delay in declaring a winner and, for the most part, helps wrap up the process quickly.”


Blue contends S.B. 326 “would substantially change how absentee ballots are treated to make them have to be received by the Board of Elections by 5 o’clock on Election Day as if the voters have control over what the Postal Service does. And it would prohibit county boards from accepting help or trying to administer the elections.”

S.B. 360 would prevent a repeat of 2020 in which the state Board of Elections, which is controlled by Democrats, secretly negotiated with the party’s top lawyer to extend the deadline for ballots to be received from three days to nine in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, North Carolina was one of the last states to declare winners in the presidential and U.S. Senate contests.


“The goal here is to prohibit a future elections director from executing a mid-election law change via secret settlement with political allies,” Newton said. “The elections director and Attorney General Josh Stein behaved so egregiously and improperly that they’ve lost the trust of many voters and legislators.”


The chances of the Republican bills becoming law are remote, primarily because Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has voiced his opposition. Since Republicans lost their veto-proof majority in the 2018 midterm elections, they’ll need Democrats’ support.


“If you had asked me that question in the last decade, I would have reluctantly answered yes, we’d have to make unnecessary concessions because we were in a super minority,” Blue said. “We had a Republican governor [Pat McCrory], and there was nothing we could do to stop a super majority of Republicans did with election laws, and we saw what a real extreme looks like.


“Now … I would say no. We’re not going to negotiate for anything that lessens the advances that we’ve made in democracy, more voter participation, early voting. We are potentially pushing a bill to try to get automatic registration. We may not get it now, but that’s what we’ll be aspiring to.”

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