LOUISBURG, N.C.— Two weeks from Election Day, a number of battleground states are still fighting over voting laws and whether voters have been adequately informed about an array of changing and sometimes complex rules.
An unprecedented number of states have put stricter election laws in place since the last presidential race. And in several cases, those laws were overturned by the courts or are still caught up in litigation, creating the potential for widespread confusion. In some states, such as North Carolina, the rules in place during the primary races have changed for the general election.
A federal court in Texas has ordered the state to reissue voter education materials that were misleading to residents. And in the Texas county that includes Fort Worth, voting rights advocates pointed to an email from Republican officials warning election workers in “Democrat-controlled” polling locations “to make sure OUR VOTER ID LAW IS FOLLOWED.” The note did not explain that polling places are supposed to allow people without the correct identification to cast a ballot if they show other documents, following a federal appeals court’s ruling that the Texas voter-ID law discriminates against minority voters.
The changing election rules add another volatile element to a presidential campaign season already marked by an unusual level of conflict between the candidates. Polls show a tightening race in a number of states that have usually gone to the GOP in recent presidential races. And faced with sinking numbers, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has claimed that the vote will be “rigged” and encouraged supporters to monitor the polling sites for fraud.
In Wisconsin, a years-long fight over the state’s new photo-ID law ended with courts ordering the Division of Motor Vehicles to make it easier for residents to get a photo identification to vote. But media reports suggested DMV locations were not following the court’s direction, and a federal judge ordered an investigation and weekly progress reports on education and retraining efforts up until the election.
And in North Carolina, advocates say voters remain confused as to whether they need to bring photo IDs after a federal appeals court struck down the state’s voting law, considered among the most controversial in the country. The law would have cut a week of early voting and required voters to show certain kinds of photo IDs, but the court called it “surgical racism.” Advocates say that the state’s efforts to curtail early voting are still in effect in some counties that have a particularly high proportion of African American voters.
“There remain a great deal of concerns on the ground,” said Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney with the Advancement Project, which represented the NAACP and other plaintiffs in the legal battle over the state’s voting law. “People are still very confused about voter ID. They’re confused about early voting and whether you can register to vote and vote on the same day. These have been back and forth in courts for three years. People are very confused about what is in effect and what isn’t.”
It was a routine training session for poll observers in small, rural Louisburg until trainer Armenta Eaton got to the bottom of the third page of her election manual.
Eaton had told the 20 volunteers gathered at the Democratic Party headquarters on Main Street one night last week what to wear and whom to call if they see long lines or other problems in this battleground state. And then, smiling, Eaton read out loud the rule that the observers needed to make sure was enforced inside their polling places: “No voter ID required!”
Eaton and her 95-year-old mother, Rosanell, were plaintiffs in the North Carolina lawsuit against the state’s voting law. The federal appeals court that ruled against it called it “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.”
But Lucy Allen, 74, who was at the session, said later that some of the voters in North Carolina are still not clear on the rules.
“Some folks don’t follow the news about the court case,” Allen said. “And all they’ve heard is that they have to have a voter ID with a picture.”
Poll watcher Peggy Lucas, 65, also at Eaton’s training, said voters still need to be told that a photo ID is no longer required to vote.
“I fear there are people in this state who feel they need it and don’t have it and will stay home,” Lucas said.
About 100 miles away from Eaton’s session, Amy Thompson was training a small group in front of computers at Guilford Technical Community College in High Point, N.C. Thompson does not represent a political party. She is working for Guilford County.
In North Carolina and across the country, political parties send their own representatives to observe, such as Eaton and the Democratic volunteers she was training. But each county also hires poll workers and chooses a chief judge to resolve disputes that may arise.
Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said that this year, his county of 355,000 registered voters will have about 1,560 poll workers who undergo four to five hours of training by the board to help conduct the election. He said the training has been going well.
Those workers, many of whom manned the polls during the March primary, are all being retrained on the change of election rules.
“It’s actually much less complicated now,” said Thompson, who stood next to a sign that said “No Photo ID Needed To Vote.” The signs are supposed to be placed at every precinct so voters will know the law has changed. “The rules before were what complicated things for us. It’s easier now that we’re back to where we used to be.”
At every precinct, a poll worker will walk the line of voters or catch voters on the way in to tell them that no ID is required, Collicutt said.
But it will not just be poll workers and the political-party observers who will be on-site. Nonpartisan groups such as Democracy North Carolina also recruit volunteers to answer election-protection hotlines and work outside polling places to ensure that poll workers are adhering to the rules and no one outside is trying to intimidate voters. And some are concerned about Trump supporters showing up at the polls and being misinformed about the law.
“We don’t want a lot of untrained people out there, because they don’t know what to look for necessarily and they might see fraud where no fraud exists,” said the associate director of Democracy North Carolina, Jenn Frye, who was training about 35 volunteers at a church in Greensboro last week.
In some counties elsewhere in the country, local officials are still fighting over how the law will be applied on Election Day.
In the largest county in Texas, Harris County, the chief elections official has said that he will forward for criminal prosecution the names of voters who sign an affidavit that they are without voter ID if he has some evidence that they received an ID or are not accurately representing their situation.
After the court ruling, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said, “If you sign that affidavit and you lie about not being able to get a photo ID, you can be prosecuted for perjury.”
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that such statements “are intended to have a chilling effect on voters.”
“What we are seeing is a pattern where local officials are clearly taking actions that are intended to undermine the weight of the court’s rulings,” Clarke said.
At a rally in Durham on the first day of early voting last week in North Carolina, the Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said the selection of the polling places showed discrimination against minorities. In past years, North Carolina Central University, a historically black university where Barber was holding his rally, had an early-polling place on campus open by this time. But this year it won’t be open until the end of the month. After the rally, students marched two miles to the nearest place where they could vote early.
“Now we have a situation where, in some counties, you may have only one early-voting site,” Barber said. “In some counties, they do not have Sunday voting, may not have Saturday voting. In all 100 counties, they should have access to Sunday and Saturday voting and to more than one site.”
A group of voters represented by Marc Elias, counsel to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign, filed an emergency motion this month asking a federal court to require the state board of elections to change the early-voting plans in five counties that they said discriminated against African Americans.
Last week, a federal appeals court rejected the request.
At the same time, the NAACP is calling on county election boards to stop trying to remove minority voters from their rolls. In Beaufort County, Barber said, a Republican recently challenged the registration of a 100-year-old African American woman, Grace Bell Hardison, who has voted in that county since 1992. He said Hardison was told that if she wanted to vote, she had to attend a hearing to defend her registration.
“We certainly had a major victory,” Barber said of the court’s ruling against North Carolina’s voter law. “But we are still fighting.”