A closely watched political fight for voting rights and control of elections is unfolding in North Carolina, as Democrats seek to recapture a presidential battleground and Republicans seek to recapture the governor’s office.
As much as Georgia, Florida and Texas drew a lot of national attention and political money when Republicans moved to restrict voting in the heated months after the 2020 election, North Carolina is ripe for headline-grabbing confrontations over almost all the levers of the electoral apparatus.
In the Republican-led legislature, the House of Representatives is considering two bills passed by the Senate that would drastically alter the way elections are conducted, adding voting restrictions and effectively neutralizing the state election board, which it is now controlled by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. . And in a looming redistricting dispute, the newly conservative state Supreme Court has ordered lawmakers to redraw the state’s congressional and state legislative maps, which will likely be much more Republican-friendly.
In North Carolina, every little advantage could matter: The state, despite a long string of Republican presidential victories punctuated by Barack Obama’s 2008 triumph, has edged ever closer. Donald J. Trump passed in 2020 by just over a percentage point and President Biden’s allies have pointed that they plan to invest in the state in 2024, seeing it as potentially winnable. Mr. Trump, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and other Republican candidates have already held events in North Carolina as they compete for their party’s nomination.
“North Carolina is one of the states that has both factors that exacerbate this,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice, referring to Republican attempts to exert more power over voting and elections. “It’s a battleground state and a state that has a history of voting discrimination.”
He added: “It’s definitely one of the most critical states to worry about.”
Seismic shifts in North Carolina politics cleared the track for Republicans to go on the offensive. They now have veto-proof legislative majorities after a Democratic representative defected to the GOP in April, limiting what Cooper can stop. And conservatives won the state Supreme Court in last year’s election, turning it from a 4-3 Liberal lean to a 5-2 Conservative lead.
Behind the scenes, a network of right-wing activists and election deniers led by Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who played a key role in efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election, have been meeting with North Carolina lawmakers. , pressing their priorities and helping to shape certain provisions.
Across the country, Republicans continue to try to toughen election laws, arguing they are necessary to protect “electoral integrity” and pointing to voter concerns about voter fraud fueled by Trump.
so far this year, at least 11 states have passed 13 laws adding such restrictions, according to the Brennan Center. That’s slightly slower progress than in 2021, when Republican-led legislatures passed a series of election laws, often in response to election lies spread by Trump and his supporters.
North Carolina has a particularly tortured past when it comes to voting rights. Under the Voting Rights Act, parts of the state were forced to obtain federal authorization to change election laws because of its history of racially discriminatory voting rules. More recently, in 2016, a federal court struck down a Republican-sponsored voter ID law, saying it had targeted “African-Americans with near-surgical precision.”
Republicans have defended the latest measures. State Sen. Warren Daniel, one of the main sponsors of the bill to change election laws, told the chamber that the measure “increases trust and transparency in our elections.” He added that certain changes, including a provision requiring all absentee ballots to be received before polls close on Election Day, would bring North Carolina in line with many other states.
Democrats, however, have denounced the ballot proposals, with one state senator, Natasha Marcus, going so far as to call them a “voter suppression jumbo jet.” During the final debate on the bill, she said that it “includes a lot of problematic things that are going to discourage people from voting, throw away ballots and suppress the votes of certain people in a way that I think is discriminatory and undemocratic. ”
One key provision would effectively eliminate same-day voter registration and replace it with a system in which voters would cast provisional ballots and then be required to track and verify their identities. Only certain forms of identification would be acceptable: Data from the State Board of Elections found that in the four general elections since 2016, more than 36 percent of voters who used same-day registration provided identification that the new law would not allow.
In 2016, when Republican state legislators tried to remove the record the same day, a Federal District Court found that it was “indisputable that African-American voters disproportionately used” that voting method. Black voters, the court found, made up 35 percent of those who registered on the same day in the 2012 election, while representing only 22 percent of the electorate.
The new legislation also complicates voting by mail, adding a requirement that voter signatures be verified and a “two-factor” authentication process that would be unique to North Carolina and has left election experts confused about how it would work. .
As in other states, many more Democrats in North Carolina now vote by mail, and Trump and his allies instill widespread Republican distrust of the practice. In the 2022 midterm elections, more than 157,000 people in the state voted by mail. Forty-five percent were Democrats and 35 percent were Independents.
When Republican lawmakers wrote the legislation, they received outside help.
Three Republican lawmakers, including Mr. Daniel, met in May with Ms. Mitchell, Trump’s attorney ally, and Jim Womack, leader of the North Carolina Election Integrity Teams. That organization is part of a national network of right-wing election activists coordinated in part by Ms Mitchell, who declined to comment.
The two activists lobbied lawmakers over their long list of changes to election laws, including measures on same-day registration, absentee ballots and voter roll maintenance, according to a video in which Womack summed up the meeting. . The video was obtained by Documented, a liberal research group, and shared with The New York Times.
“Same day registration, we all agree, violent agreement, that same day registration will now be a provisional ballot,” Womack said in video of the meeting. “So if he is going to register the same day, it will give him at least a little bit of time, maybe 7 to 10 days, to have an opportunity to investigate and challenge that voter under the law instead of where he is. It is now, where there is less than 24 hours of opportunity to do it”.
Mr. Daniel declined to answer questions about the role Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Womack played in drafting the bills.
A 2017 law intended to restructure the state election board was struck down by the state Supreme Court. Now that the court is more conservative, Republicans have revived the effort.
Currently, Mr. Cooper appoints all five members of the board, but only three can be Democrats. Under the Republican proposal, the board would have eight members, all appointed by state legislators, four by Democratic leaders and four by Republicans.
State Sen. Paul Newton, the bill’s Republican sponsor, introduced it as a measure “intended to take partisan advantage of election administration entirely.”
The bill would no doubt cause a deadlock on many important election issues, a prospect that has alarmed election officials and democracy experts.
The current election board, after reports of harassment of election officials in 2022, stepped in with rules limiting access for poll watchers, a move that angered conservatives.
And there is a big unknown: What would happen if the new electoral board reached an impasse over the certification of an election?
This possibility is not contemplated in the bill. Phil Berger, the Republican leader of the State Senate, told The News and Observer that such a deadlock would likely send the matter to the courts, where decisions could depend on the partisan leaning of the judge or court in question.
“That’s an indication,” said Robyn Sanders, legal adviser for the Brennan Center. “It seems pretty clear to me that it was deliberately designed so that there would be those kinds of situations.”