Much has been said and written about the election law reform legislation known as VIVA (Voter Information Verification Act – HB 589) – but too many of the reports are misleading or just plain wrong.
The legislation was passed in the 2013 legislative session and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory in August. Mostly, the old guard media have focused on just three provisions of the new law — the voter ID requirement, the elimination of same day registration and the shortened early voting window. These three parts of the law are the most controversial, so focusing on them gives liberal advocacy groups a platform on which to continue their assault on the people who support election reform. These three items are also the main targets of several lawsuits brought against the law filed by liberal advocacy groups, including the NAACP. Attorney General Eric Holder also announced that lawyers for the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division had filed suit against the law in October.
But the media have never acknowledged the bigger picture: VIVA is the first comprehensive updating of our election laws in decades. North Carolina’s election system had become a jumble of complicated and sometimes contradictory laws and administrative decisions made by the State Board of Elections, often with little or no regard for the legislature. The voting process had become confusing and dysfunctional, with no built-in security to protect the integrity of a person’s vote.
VIVA is a comprehensive piece of legislation that seeks to unravel the confusion and protect some of North Carolina’s most vulnerable voters. It updates outdated campaign finance law, restores order to polling places, and attempts to establish fair and impartial solutions to voting problems that have gone ignored for years.
Plain and simple, North Carolina’s election laws had been written and rewritten by one party to enable it to control the legislative branch for more than 110 years. Case in point: North Carolina is one of only three states (along with Delaware and Tennessee) that placed the Democratic Party at the top position on every partisan ballot in every election. North Carolina law stated that candidates would appear “in alphabetical order by party and in alphabetical order within the party.” This practice was never questioned. One would be hard-pressed to find a credible study that suggests the top of the ballot position does not improve a candidate’s chances of winning. In VIVA, the law was changed so that now the nominees of political parties will appear in alphabetical order by party beginning with the party whose nominee for Governor received the most votes in the most recent gubernatorial election, and in alphabetical order within the party.
Another example of VIVA’s common-sense reforms and reversal of a purely partisan application of an election law is the elimination of straight-party voting. This change goes beyond just the repeal of an antiquated law implemented to make voting easier in a one-party state, but it also does away with what even the liberal Brennan Center for Justice calls a “ballot flaw.” While North Carolina was one of just 15 states that included a straight-party option on partisan ballots, it was the only state that did not include the presidential contest in the straight-party selection. North Carolina Democrats dropped the presidential contest from straight-ticket voting in 1967. Since then, Republican presidential candidates have carried the state in 10 out of the last 12 presidential elections. This measure in VIVA does not give the advantage to the Republicans as the Democrats had done for their party in 1960s, but reduces the chances of any voter missing a vote for the presidential candidate.
Consider another reform in VIVA that will benefit all voters by reversing a rule put in place by a political party to discourage another party from voting. VIVA makes voting by mail easier by eliminating the requirement that voters who vote by mail must make their requests for a ballot in their own handwriting. This provision reverses a change made in the 1990s by the Democratic legislature in response to the realization that Republicans were successfully turning their voters out to vote by using the absentee-by mail process. Their legislation put an end to the mailers that Republicans used to help voters receive absentee ballots and to discourage using the absentee-by-mail process altogether.
These three changes are hardly acts of revenge, for they do not aid one political party but merely level the playing field after Democrats tilted it. In general, VIVA attempts to improve fairness in elections and the election process in North Carolina, just as the voter ID requirement will require everyone to show an ID to obtain a ballot — not just one class of voters.
There has been little written about the entire elections reform law. Civitas plans to better inform people about what VIVA really does, beginning with a list of most of the bill’s provisions. We will also follow up with more detailed articles on specific elements of the bill that will include background and history to help the reader understand the need for the change.
No doubt the attacks from progressive activists will continue on the legislators who passed the bill and the Governor who signed it and for that matter anyone else who dares to suggest changes were needed after so many years of partisan trifling with North Carolinians’ votes. We hope that the implementation of these election laws will start to restore sanity to the election and voting process and will begin to improve a system that had been ignored for many years.
Click here to download and print a summary of the law’s key points, which are also listed below.