When it rains voter suppression

By: - September 20, 2018 5:00 am

It’s a truism that weather affects elections. Yes, many of us would slosh through a downpour if that’s what it took to get to the polls. But a cold, driving rain is a disincentive. Like it or not, that’s plain old human nature.

Let’s not try to forecast the weather for Nov. 6, the Election Day that’s fast approaching, or for the early-voting period that begins Oct. 17. However, this we can safely predict: Voters in many North Carolina communities will face unusual challenges because of the lingering devastation from Hurricane Florence.

People who spend days amidst terrible flooding and then face weeks of arduous recovery may confront a range of voting difficulties. Regular polling places may be out of service, or early voting may be curtailed. Transportation may be hard to arrange for folks whose vehicles were flooded out. They may have to relocate, meaning their voter registration must be updated.

All that’s against the backdrop of a midterm election with no marquee races on the ballot – although it surely doesn’t lack in importance. Every seat in the General Assembly – 120 in the state House, 50 in the Senate – will be on the line, as will all 13 of North Carolina’s seats in the U.S. House. Republicans are bucking political headwinds to try to sustain their veto-proof majorities in the legislature and their control in both congressional chambers.

Then there’s the slate of six amendments to the state constitution proposed by the legislature in an effort to advance dubious policy choices and to shift even more power away from the governor.

Each amendment is tied to a referendum on the ballot, using murky language that voters will have to decode to gauge the changes’ actual or potential impact. No wonder many groups and civic leaders promoting good government and a strong democracy, including the N.C. Council of Churches, oppose all six of these measures – and this election shapes up as the last chance to sidetrack them.


A pattern holding true since forever, and certainly evident in parts of North Carolina ravaged by major hurricanes such as Floyd, Matthew and Florence, is that poorer folks tend to wind up living on lower ground where they’re more vulnerable to floods.

Naturally there are exceptions – well-off people who can afford a place with nice water views and who can afford to rebuild if disaster strikes. But it hasn’t escaped notice among leaders of the North Carolina NAACP that the people of color for whom it advocates are heavily represented among those now suffering in Florence’s wake. And that brings election-year politics into play.

The Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, NAACP president who doubles as president of the Council of Churches, had this to say in an announcement reported by Melissa Boughton of Policy Watch:

It is imperative that while our communities struggle to recover from the devastating flooding and other destruction from this storm, citizens’ right to vote should not be impaired. The NAACP has long advocated for the right to vote and we know from the experience of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 that flood-impacted areas had depressed voter turnout.”

The NAACP is encouraging people who might have trouble getting to a voting site to apply to their county elections board for an absentee ballot, which can be done through Oct. 30. Any registered voter can vote absentee, and no reason needs to be offered. Voters can update their addresses through Oct. 12, which is this fall’s voter registration deadline.

Yet while the NAACP and its allies work to encourage voting amid the Florence recovery, there are others who likely would be just as happy to see those efforts flop.

The legislature, during its recent years of Republican dominance, has proved hostile to voting rights – especially when the rights of people who might tend to favor Democratic candidates are at stake. Poor people? Check. People of color? Check. Flood survivors in the low-lying neighborhoods of New Bern, Wilmington, Lumberton? To pose that question is to answer it.

These are the lawmakers who tried to suppress voting with cutbacks to early voting and same-day registration, and with what was regarded as the nation’s strictest voter ID law. Their efforts were turned back by the federal courts. But guess what: Among the constitutional amendments now up for a referendum is one to embed in the constitution a requirement that in-person voters show a photo ID.

What kind of ID? That’s conveniently not spelled out. So someone could imagine that the rules would be on the lenient side. Past legislative behavior suggests that would be a fantasy.

Notwithstanding claims that the intent is to reduce fraud – fraud that’s basically non-existent – voter ID laws plainly are targeted at winnowing the number of voters among certain demographic groups who are less likely to have a driver’s license, the most common official ID.

That includes young people, old people, racial and ethnic minorities. Not all of them vote Democratic, of course. But enough of them do that Republican legislative chiefs would just as soon obstruct their path to the polls.

Your records, pronto

Elections boards in North Carolina’s flood-ravaged communities will be scrambling to make sure they can conduct fair, honest, accessible elections beginning with early voting in less than a month. Those challenges will be especially daunting across the state’s southeast, where as we’ve noted, people on the social and economic margins will be heavily affected by the storm and its waterlogged aftermath.

So now we’re left to reckon with the impact of a move by none other than the federal government that bids to complicate matters for election officials even more, and thus to put voting rights even further at risk.

Just before the Labor Day weekend, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina, staffed by Justice Department prosecutors, issued subpoenas to the state elections board and boards in 44 counties seeking a massive quantity of elections-related documents. The News & Observer of Raleigh reported that the request covers “more than 2.2 million ballots that are traceable to the voters who cast them.”

The subpoenas were issued at the urging of the agency known as ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. They follow a round of federal indictments accusing 19 people in North Carolina of having voted illegally in 2016 because they weren’t citizens.

Initially, the demands – by one reckoning, for a total of 20 million voting records – came with a compliance deadline of Sept. 25. That’s as shocking as it was absurd. Only when the state elections board unanimously authorized state Attorney General Josh Stein to fight the subpoenas did the feds agree to delay the deadline until sometime in January, if the records are preserved.

One can only imagine the turmoil it will cause to assemble this trove of records, some of which would date from 2010. They would include all manner of voter registration documents, early voting and absentee ballot application forms, and even “executed official ballots.” Voters’ names could be redacted to shield their choices, but the effort required to do that would itself be immense.

Overreach on purpose

No one questions the importance or wisdom of keeping non-citizens from voting. But as Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, pointed out in an article published by Capitol Broadcasting, the document demands are completely out of scale to any reasonable gauge of the size of the problem.

“Nineteen people who may have voted illegally,” Phillips wrote. “Nineteen people out of 4.5 million ballots cast in the 2016 election. Nineteen people who range in ages from 30’s to 70’s and come from countries in Europe, South America and Asia.

“That is 0.0004 percent of all those who voted in 2016. Is that what widespread voter fraud looks like?”

What the federal government – or to put it another way, the Trump administration – has done is to throw stink bombs of disruption into the offices responsible for conducting the upcoming elections smoothly and fairly. As if elections boards didn’t have enough to worry about, what with flood damage that no doubt will linger for months.

The sad irony is that if the disruptions work, they will impede voters from holding to account some of the same officials whose policies – lax on coastal development, oblivious on climate change – combine to make those voters more vulnerable to the cruel twists of nature.

Let’s hope the weather when election time arrives is pleasant and dry. But no matter what discouragements arise, all eligible eastern North Carolina voters have special reasons to make sure their voices are heard.

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.