The hearing that will determine the fate of North Carolina’s election reform law wrapped up Aug. 7. Groups that included the NC NAACP and the League of Women Voters of NC, joined by Eric Holder’s (and Loretta Lynch’s) U.S. Justice Department, are suing the state over election reform legislation (the Voter Information Verification Act, or VIVA) passed by the Republican-led legislature and signed into law in 2013.
Testimony focused on a few key provisions of the law: the shortened early voting period, the elimination of same-day registration (SDR), and the elimination of out-of-precinct voting (on Election Day).
U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder of North Carolina’s Middle District listened to three weeks of testimony in the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem. It will undoubtedly take weeks for the judge to reach his decision, and there is little doubt his decision will be appealed.
The new law was in effect (with the exception of the voter ID portion, which is scheduled to be implemented in 2016) for the 2014 primary and general elections. In both elections, voter turnout increased overall compared with the 2010 elections, especially in the African-American demographic. If the judge rules in favor of the new election reform law, we can be confident subsequent elections will also be successful, with the added security that would reassure voters of the integrity of the election process.
If Schroeder chooses to block any of the key provisions of North Carolina’s new election reform law, we will experience a fundamental change compared with 2014 and any sense of security will be removed from the state’s election process once again. Consider the following scenarios:
- Increase the number of days early voting will be open. VIVA shortened the window of early, in-person voting from 17 days to 10. If this change is reversed, local election boards will have less time and will need to pay more workers to prepare for Election Day. In every election, voter registration increases proportionally with the size and importance of the election, often pushing the local boards to their limits to make sure that all new voter registrations and changes to existing registrations are processed as soon as possible, ideally before early voting begins. Ten days of early voting begins 13 days out from Election Day, giving the local boards 12 days to process voter registrations from the voter registration deadline and the first day of early voting. Given that, in some counties, thousands of voter registrations are delivered in the last days before the registration deadline, if the judge allows 17 days of early voting, that will leave only five full days to get the job done before early voting begins. Naturally, this type of pressure will lead to errors that will need to be dealt with during the voting process.
If the judge requires North Carolina to offer 17 days of early voting, we will almost certainly observe a decrease in early voting locations compared with 2014. Although VIVA decreased the number of days for in-person early voting, VIVA also required counties to be open the same number of hours as in 2010. To accomplish that requirement, some counties opened additional sites – a change that was popular among voters in those counties.
- Restore same-day registration. SDR is the process in which a voter is allowed to register and vote at the same time during early voting. The problem SDR poses is that these voters are not “verified” by mail as all other voters are required to be – because there is not enough time to go through the process.
SDR combined with early, in-person voting is a dangerous mix. These two provisions working together make it extremely easy to commit voter fraud. Take the November 2013 town of Pembroke elections. In December 2013, the State Board of Elections (SBOE) heard evidence that candidates in a town of Pembroke election helped people who were not qualified to vote, including out-of-state residents, to register to vote using SDR and then cast a ballot during early voting during the November election. While this turned out to be a high-profile case, it leads us to wonder: How many other cases of fraudulent voting using SDR have there been? Especially since there are no security measures to detect this type of fraud.
- Reinstate out-of-precinct voting. Out-of-precinct voting was first implemented in 2005 and allows voters to go to another precinct other than the one they are assigned to on Election Day. The problem with this practice is voters will more than likely receive the wrong ballot, in most cases it is inevitable because not all precincts carry the same ballot styles. After the polls close, the board of elections must look at every ballot cast out of precinct and decide which of the votes will count on each ballot.
If Judge Schroeder allows out-of-precinct voting to take place again, we can be sure that some of the same groups suing the state will continue their get-out-the-vote programs as they had in the past. These programs allow drivers to take voters to the nearest or most convenient or most strategic precinct. These are the voters who are truly disenfranchised and they are never informed that all of their votes may not count.
The judge’s decision will hopefully bring clarity to not only the election process but also to the true intentions of the liberal/progressive groups that continue to say they are fighting for voting rights, but whose actions say something altogether different. They charge voter suppression, but cold, hard facts contradict the claim VIVA discourages black voters.
The May 2014 Primary Election was the first election where the challenged provisions were implemented. In that election, not only did overall turnout increase, but African-Americans voted in significantly higher numbers than they did in the comparable primary of 2010. In fact, African-American turnout increased by nearly 30 percent in 2014 compared with 2010. Overall turnout increased by 5 percent, with 147,700 more residents voting in 2014 than in 2010.
While we don’t know how the judge will rule, we can be sure that, if he rules in favor of the plaintiffs, North Carolina election process will revert to the weak and confusing system that it was before VIVA. The old laws created a sense of chaos in North Carolina’s election system that ultimately left many voters with the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Were all the votes counted? Were some votes counted that shouldn’t be counted? Was everyone who voted the person he or she claimed to be? There was no way to know for sure. VIVA attempted to level the playing field and to remove advantages enjoyed by any political party.
It is interesting to note that Judge Schroeder presided over the preliminary injunction hearing in July 2014 where the plaintiffs sought to halt these same provisions before the General Election. That hearing lasted a week, and barely a month later Schroeder denied the preliminary injunction and found that “black voters will not have unequal access to the polls” due to the new provisions. He also wrote in his 125-page decision that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that this law was “implemented with the intent to deny or abridge the right to vote of African-American North Carolinians or the Constitution.”
Schroeder’s preliminary injunction decision gives us hope that he will find for all the people of North Carolina and for voter integrity in general.