Early voting compromises: Not perfect, but better than had been feared

By: - September 12, 2016 12:35 pm
The State Board of Elections discussed early voting plans at its Sept. 8 meeting.

The folks in North Carolina who want to make it harder rather than easier for people to vote – a category that features top officials of the state Republican Party – lost a big battle in the federal courts. So they’ve tried to win the war by narrowing opportunities to cast ballots before the Election Day showdown on Nov. 8.

Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse made the party’s strategy clear in a recent memo to county election boards. By law, each three-member board has a Republican majority because that’s the party of the incumbent governor, Pat McCrory.

“Our Republican Board members should feel empowered to make legal changes to early voting plans, that are supported by Republicans,” Woodhouse wrote in his email, “Republicans can and should make party line changes to early voting.”

Luckily for citizens who appreciate early voting’s convenience, plenty of the 100 local boards have taken a more public-spirited view of their responsibilities, rejecting the guidance from GOP headquarters. And the State Board of Elections, with a 3-2 Republican edge, on Sept. 8 acted in a commendable spirit of compromise in resolving 33 local disputes that remained.

The state board has the final say when local boards are split on early voting locations and schedules. Voting rights advocates and local Democrats didn’t get everything they wanted, especially with regard to more voting on Sundays. But in several cases, more polling places and more hours for voting were approved.

All in all, the board affirmed its commitment to the principle of fair access to the polls – a principle that is a glory of America’s representative democracy, even if in times past it’s been trampled by the power-hungry, the prejudiced and the arrogant elite.

Less voting, the better?

Republican legislators, with McCrory their partner, passed a law in 2013 embodying a severe set of voting restrictions. The law included what were widely seen as the nation’s toughest voter identification rules, along with cutbacks in early voting and an end to same-day registration during the early-vote period.

The voter ID rules were softened somewhat under the pressure of court challenges. But when lawsuits reached the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a panel of three judges threw out all the disputed provisions for unconstitutionally discriminating against African-Americans.

State leaders asked the U.S. Supreme Court to keep the law in effect for the upcoming election, pending their appeal of the Fourth Circuit’s ruling. But the high court – lacking a ninth member since the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia – on Aug. 31 divided 4-4 along its familiar ideological lines. With that tie, the state’s request failed.

The Fourth Circuit panel agreed with the law’s challengers that black citizens would have been disproportionately affected by the new voting restrictions. For instance, African-Americans have been especially inclined to vote early, so limiting that option would tend to suppress black turnout. Data considered by the court shows that in 2012, 64 percent of black voters used the early voting option, compared with 49 percent of white voters.

Racial impacts

It stands to reason that a group including many people who may have a hard time getting to the polls on Election Day itself – perhaps because of jobs that don’t allow for the kind of flexibility that more fortunate workers take for granted – would be well-represented among early voters.

And it’s within the black community that so-called Souls to the Polls campaigns have become a tradition, with church members sometimes heading out together after services when Sunday voting is offered. The discredited law would have cut the early voting period from 17 days to 10 and dropped one of two available Sundays.

The appellate judges found that the Republican-backed measures “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” Even if the goal was to disadvantage Democrats, not to discriminate on the basis of race, using race as a proxy for party runs afoul of the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act, the panel ruled. Given the struggles black Americans have endured to gain even a semblance of equality at the polls, they’re well-entitled to their status as a legally protected class.

The Republican agenda has been rooted in obvious partisanship. The GOP is desperate to put North Carolina in presidential nominee Donald Trump’s win column, anxious to secure a second term for Gov. McCrory, hoping to maintain its veto-proof majorities in the state House and Senate.

Fiddling with election laws to give the party’s candidates a boost may be hardball, but it’s nothing the Democrats haven’t done as well. The difference is that Democrats typically want to encourage more people to vote instead of slamming the polling place door in their faces.

Who’s likely to end up on the outside looking in? Minorities, the elderly, the poor — people who, for a host of reasons, fall among society’s disadvantaged. Casting their votes may be the most tangible way they can speak in their own interests. That’s one reason the Council of Churches takes a strong stand in defense of voting rights.

Fraud fallacies

Republican leaders say their election law changes were meant to limit possible fraud. Woodhouse, for example, asserted that fraud is a particular risk when people are allowed to register and vote on the same day, because there isn’t enough time to verify their identities. Perhaps that risk can’t be dismissed out of hand, but official allegations of fraud have been few and far between. Proper coordination by properly funded agencies would drive any risk of cheating even lower.

Under the now-suspended law, although days for early voting were cut, the number of hours wasn’t supposed to drop below the level offered in the presidential election year of 2012. The Fourth Circuit ruling had the perhaps unanticipated consequence of eliminating that floor.

That’s what led to the dispute over early voting schedules, with Woodhouse urging Republican-controlled boards to help the party by tightening up. (He took a front-row seat at the State Board of Elections’ Sept. 8 meeting.) As of Sept. 6, local boards in 23 counties had decided to trim early voting hours. But 70 boards agreed to offer more early voting, not less – a sensible approach toward relieving Election Day overloads at crowded polling places and making the whole process run more smoothly.

The state board had to balance pressure from Republican Party officials who wanted to limit early voting to the minimum required by law – in some cases, one site per county, open only during business hours – against warnings that to endorse such limits would invite further intervention by the courts.

The board’s middle-of-the-road solutions included overruling local boards in fast-growing Wake and Mecklenburg counties, the state’s two most populous, to provide more voting sites during the first week of early voting. Voters of all persuasions will benefit. The board’s bipartisan-flavored work perhaps will mark another turning point in the effort to make North Carolina a place where every citizen has a fair chance to help chart the course of community, state and nation.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.

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Steve Ford
Steve Ford

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, wrote this commentary for the North Carolina Council of Churches, which was first to publish it at www.ncchurches.org.