With Voting Rights Act in Shambles, North Carolina Kicks Voter Suppression Into High Gear
North Carolina Republicans have introduced a major overhaul of the state's election system, adding dozens of amendments to a voter ID bill that will authorize voter vigilantes, end election day registration, cut early voting, make it harder to register, and even create loony protections against "zombie voters."
"Senate leaders have taken what was already an awful voter ID bill and created a nightmarish set of anti-voting measures that is sure to keep thousands of people from voting in the state," declared Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan good government organization, in an email to supporters.
With the U.S. Supreme Court having gutted the federal pre-clearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act, the North Carolina legislature is now largely free to enact voter restrictions without receiving the federal government's approval. The Republican-led legislature was already expected to pass a restrictive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-inspired voter ID law that threatened to disenfranchise 318,000 registered voters who don't have state-issued identification, but the new provisions were added as an amendment to that already-strict bill.
The House passed the voter ID bill requirement in April, but Senate leaders waited to add the amendments until the final week of the legislative session, and rolled-out the changes with almost no notice. The bill passed through the Senate rules committee on Tuesday, with just 10 members of the public allowed to testify. Members of the audience who applauded during the hearing were rejected from the room. "The substance and the process of this legislation demonstrate a complete disrespect of honest voters,"said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina.
Measures like voter ID and limits on election-day registration and early voting have been promoted as a way to prevent "voter fraud," but recent studies show that out of millions of votes cast over the last 14 years in North Carolina, there have been only two cases of suspected fraud. Do two possible cases of voter fraud justify imposing new restrictions on 318,000 registered voters who don't have ID, 155,000 voters who registered at the polls, and a majority of voters who voted early?
Among other things, the amended bill:
- Cuts Early Voting by a full week, which could lead to longer waits on election day, and which is made worse by another provision that prohibits counties from extending poll hours in case of long lines or other extraordinary circumstances. Florida pulled the same move before the 2012 elections, which led to six-hour lines and an estimated 200,000 voters who gave up and didn't vote. On Tuesday morning, voting rights groups in North Carolina warned lawmakers not to repeat Florida's mistake, planting dozens of plastic pink flamingos in the lawn outside the Legislative Building. “Despite warnings, North Carolina is poised to make the same mistakes Florida made,” said Justin Guillory of the liberal advocacy group Progress North Carolina. In the 2012 elections, 56 percent of voters in North Carolina voted early, particularly voters of color.
- Ends Election Day Registration: North Carolina is one of just nine states that allow voters to register at the polls on election day, with California and Connecticut soon to join the list. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Republican legislators also targeted election day registration last year (although they dropped the effort after public outcry and an estimate that ending the practice would cost the state $14.5 million). Around 155,000 North Carolina voters registered at the polls in 2012.
- Authorizes Voting Vigilantes like True the Vote, a group best known for training Tea Partiers to patrol polling places for voter fraud, in many cases prompting accusations of voter intimidation. The group had a presence in North Carolina for the 2012 elections, but the potential for voter suppression was blunted by North Carolina law only allowing voter challenges from an individual registered within that precinct. This helped limit white voter vigilantes traveling to communities of color and intimidating voters, as True the Vote poll watchers have been known to do. The amendments would eliminate the precinct-only provision and allow challenges from any registered voter in a county.
- Codifies "Zombie Voter" Paranoia with a provision that reads:
"At the time funeral arrangements are made, a funeral director or funeral service licensee is encouraged to make available to near relatives of the deceased a form upon which the near relative may report the status of the deceased voter to the board of elections of the county in which the deceased was a registered voter."
For years, Republican lawmakers have peddled myths of the dead casting ballots, despite essentially zero evidence of it happening. The issue became particularly salient last year in South Carolina, when Republicans in the state alleged (and Fox News repeated) claims that nearly 1,000 dead people had voted in the previous six years, which was used to justify strict voter ID laws. But an 18-month long investigation by the South Carolina law enforcement division showed not a single case of dead voters casting ballots.
- Eliminate pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds;
- End "Citizens Awareness Month," an annual event where the State Board of Elections runs a voter registration drive;
- Increase contribution limits to $5,000 (up from $4,000), with those limits scheduled to rise with inflation;
- Limit disclosure requirements for issue ads and calls for a study into eliminating 48-hour campaign finance reporting requirements, further cloaking election spending in secrecy.
"Political bullies rigging the election system for their own self interest."
The impact of the North Carolina bill closely resembles a similar omnibus piece of legislation introduced in Wisconsin earlier this year, which like the North Carolina law, would enact voter ID, restrict early voting, and make it harder to register. Wisconsin's bill was also introduced at the last-minute and fast-tracked to minimize debate, although its most egregious provisions were eventually blunted in a compromise with Democrats.
There is no statistically significant incidence of voter fraud, but the legislature's proposal would have a major impact on North Carolina voters, particularly those who tend to vote for Democrats. The bill is expected to sail through the Republican-dominated legislature.
Bob Hall, Executive Director of Democracy North Carolina, says the intentions behind the amendments are clear:
“This is political bullies rigging the election system for their own self interest."
© 2013 Center for Media and Democracy