May 29, 2017 at 6:01 PM
by William Wan
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature has worked steadily and forcefully during the past seven years to tilt the state's election system in its favor, using voting restrictions, favorable district maps and a slew of new policies that lawmakers say are aimed at reducing voter fraud.
But at every turn, Democrats and voting rights advocates have stymied their plans, dragging them to court and condemning the GOP actions as discriminatory against the state's minorities.
Instead of giving up — even after two major defeats this month in the U.S. Supreme Court — North Carolina's Republican leaders are working to push the battle over the ballot box into a new phase.
Rumors are circulating here about a new Republican voter identification bill, after federal judges struck down a previous version because they said it targeted African Americans "with almost surgical precision." Voting rights advocates are convening emergency meetings to plan legal defenses. Democrats are trying in sly, casual conversations with Republican colleagues to extract details on its timing and contours, but Republicans leaders have maintained a disciplined silence.
Their only public comment has been a terse statement vowing to make this second law requiring voter identification law a reality. "All North Carolinians can rest assured that Republican legislators will continue fighting to protect the integrity of our elections by implementing the commonsense requirement to show a photo ID when we vote," House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said in a joint statement.
Beyond the voter identification law, almost every aspect of the state's electoral system is being drawn into this acrimonious political war, from the composition of local election boards and who has the power to appoint them, to rules determining the exact days, hours and operations of voting precincts.
There are now so many lawsuits that even elected officials say they have trouble keeping track. The most contentious of the court fights have focused on redrawn maps for congressional and state legislative districts, but there have been challenges over redistricted seats as far down as local county commissioners and school boards.
The intensifying nature of North Carolina's ballot-box battles echoes a nationwide trend. During the past six years, 21 states have passed new voting restrictions, including five so far this year.
"North Carolina right now is the canary in the coal mine," said Wendy Weiser, an election law expert at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank. "It's not that the issues at stake in North Carolina are unique, but the attempts there at voter restriction have been bigger and more extreme than anywhere else. It gives us a glimpse of where we as a country may be headed if we don't find a way to apply the brakes on efforts to game the electoral system."
Voting rights advocates also worry about the possibility of federal actions that could make it more difficult for some U.S. citizens to vote by potentially making it easier to purge voter rolls or requiring voter identification cards nationwide. They point to President Trump's creation this month of a commission to look into his claims of widespread voter fraud in November's presidential election as momentum toward broader federal restrictions.
In states such as North Carolina, the argument from Republicans — in courts and in public — is that their new laws are aimed at combating voter fraud.
Democrats and voting rights activists cite numerous studies that show such fraud is rare, and they say the new restrictions on voting access and dramatic redistricting of electoral maps disproportionately affect African Americans, other minorities and young voters. Republicans retort that their redistricting moves are purely motivated by politics, not by race, and they note that when Democrats were in control of the state, they similarly reorganized electoral maps to their advantage.
Grier Martin, a Democratic state legislator in Raleigh, actually benefited from how Republicans redrew his district in recent years. Republicans packed his district with Democrats to make surrounding districts easier for Republicans to win. But he says Republicans are now trying to game the system in a way that is eroding democracy.
"When my district used to be competitive, I knocked on thousands of doors. Guess how many doors I've knocked on since redistricting? Zero," Martin said.
He said he listens to voters in other ways. "But the way Republicans have set it up now, nothing I do will keep me from being reelected," Martin said. "And the losers are the voters who just become pawns in this political game."
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina relied too heavily on race in redrawing two of its congressional districts, a decision that could make it easier to challenge redistricting plans in other states. That came on the heels of a Supreme Court decision this month not to take up arguments about North Carolina's previous voter identification law, effectively killing it.
There's more legal drama to come. North Carolina legislators are anxiously awaiting yet another Supreme Court decision that could come this week and would determine whether North Carolina will hold special elections this year for many redistricted legislative seats that federal judges found were racially based and unconstitutional.
The federal court rulings have left Republicans in Raleigh deeply frustrated. They blame the judges for painting their actions as racially motivated.
"It's not just the rulings that are wrong, but the language coming from those judges — the lines about Republicans targeting African Americans with surgical precision, the accusations about why Republicans are doing things. It's an abomination," said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of North Carolina's Republican Party. "There are legitimate, compelling reasons for laws like voter ID that will give people more confidence in the election system."
Jim Burton, former caucus director for the state's House GOP, said that the issue is becoming a question of state sovereignty and that North Carolina should be able to make its own decisions about its elections.
"For 200 years, it's been up to state legislatures to draw these maps, and now it's being determined by a handful of judges, who keep moving the ball and changing the rules," Burton said.
GOP legislative leaders did not respond to requests for comment, and none contacted was willing talk about the party's strategy. But Republican operatives confirmed plans among party leaders for a second wave of voting laws.
The main problem with their previous voter identification bill, several said, was that it had included too many other restrictions — such as eliminating early voting and same-day registration — making it more vulnerable to legal challenge. This time around, they said, Republicans will probably split up their restrictions into individual bills, including a simpler, less-restrictive identification law that also allows voters to present student identification cards and other government-issued identification to vote.
With so much of the battle being decided in courts, North Carolina's Republican legislators recently pushed forward bills that opponents say are aimed at weakening Democrats' ability to challenge them in court. After Democrats won back the governor's office in November, Republicans have tried to take away the new governor's ability to appoint judges.
"The judiciary has been our last line of defense," said Jen Jones, director of communications for Democracy North Carolina, a voting rights group. "If we lose the courts, we lose the ability to fight for people's right to vote."
In April, a Republican judge so objected to his own party's tactics that he resigned just days before GOP lawmakers could enact one of the new laws on court appointments. That allowed the new Democratic governor to appoint a replacement ahead of the law.
The outcome of North Carolina's war over voting rights could have major national ramifications. Because the state is so politically competitive, any advantage heading into the 2018 election could affect the balance of power in Washington. Before Republicans took over the legislature in 2011 and redrew the electoral maps, Democrats controlled seven of North Carolina's 13 seats in Congress. Now Democrats hold just three.
"That's a four-seat pickup for Republicans in just one state. That's huge," said state Rep. Darren Jackson, Democratic leader in the state House. But the biggest impact of North Carolina's escalating war over the ballot box goes deeper than the political fortunes of either side, he said.
"To make it harder for people to vote, to put up barriers and take away their voice, it's wrong on moral grounds," Jackson said. "Voting is a constitutional right."