Voting Suppression Maneuvers in North Carolina
By Jim Harbison ‘73
North Carolina is a battleground state, with the political affiliations of voters split roughly equally among Democrats, Republicans, and non-affiliated voters. Democrats held a slight lead in voter affiliation as recently as 2020. Despite this political alignment, Republican lawmakers were able to draw gerrymandered voting maps after the 2010 census, and they obtained a disproportionate number of seats in and control of the state legislature and its Congressional delegation. They did so again after the 2020 census.
Advocacy groups challenged those 2021 redistricting plans as partisan gerrymandering that violated North Carolina’s Constitution. In February 2022, the North Carolina State Supreme Court, then with a 4-3 Democratic majority, rejected the maps and mandated a fairer, court-drawn interim map for the November 2022 elections. However, after Republican judges were elected to the Supreme Court from newly drawn districts to constitute a 5-2 Republican majority following the 2022 partisan judicial elections, the Court agreed to rehear the case.
On April 28, 2023, the new majority reversed the Court’s earlier decision, ruling that courts have no jurisdiction over such redistricting disputes. The new majority remanded the case to give the General Assembly the opportunity to enact new redistricting plans, “guided by federal law and the objective constraints in the state constitution.” The decision opens the door for passage of gerrymandered maps in North Carolina, which would remain in effect until the next census in 2030 (See here).
In another blow to voting rights, on April 28, 2023, the State Supreme Court overruled a lower court decision that had invalidated a law disenfranchising individuals who were on felony probation, parole, or post-release supervision. The lower court had ruled that the law violated the North Carolina Constitution because it discriminated against Black voters and denied people the right to vote. As a result, disenfranchisement of felons who have been released from prison remains in place in North Carolina.
Both the NC House and Senate had Democratic majorities from 1999 to 2010, but that switched in 2011, after the Republicans successfully gerrymandered districts in the state (See here) as part of the Republican Party’s country-wide REDMAP project. The state House and Senate have remained under Republican control ever since. What has helped keep balance in the government from a political point of view is that Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has served as Governor since 2017.
That balance is now threatened because a Democratic state representative, Tricia Cotham, switched to the Republican party in April. Republicans now have a veto-proof supermajority in the state House as well as in the state Senate, which enables the legislature to override any veto by the Governor. A sign of what may come is legislation relaxing gun law requirements, which passed through a veto override in March.
A bill limiting the governor’s appointment powers is likely to become law as well because of the new supermajority. And on May 4, 2023 the legislature passed a bill that would ban most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy from its current 20-week period, setting the stage for a test of the Republican Party’s new, but slim, supermajority.
With their supermajorities, Republican legislators have also begun assembling and enacting bills that would limit or suppress voting access. The legislature has already passed funding for a Voter ID law; such measures may, and often do, disproportionately affect Black and younger voters. Although the prior Democratic majority on the Supreme Court rejected that law as discriminatory, the new Supreme Court Republican majority reversed the previous decision.
Among the bills under consideration is a proposal to scale back absentee voting (Senate Bill 88/House Bill 304) with a floor vote likely to be scheduled in the near future. The bill would allow absentee ballots to be counted only if received by 5 p.m. on election day. Under current law, ballots are counted if they are postmarked by election day and received within three days thereafter.
The bill would also require voters to mail or deliver their absentee ballots in person to the county board of elections office and would prohibit the use of one-stop voting sites for ballot drop-offs. These provisions could impose onerous burdens on many voters who are homebound, have physical limitations, inflexible work schedules, pressing familial obligations, and/or lack the ability or means to travel to their county board of elections office. Such concerns led Governor Cooper to veto a similar bill in 2021. The fate of this current bill will most likely be different because of the legislative supermajority’s ability to override such a veto.
For those of you who live in North Carolina, write or otherwise contact your representatives to let your concerns be known. You can also express your views on this and a series of other proposed voter suppression bills under consideration on the website of Democracy North Carolina.
In addition, we can all help voters or prospective voters by volunteering for or donating to organizations that provide guidance on registration as well as other voting information and assistance to residents in North Carolina. Such organizations include VoteRiders, a 501(c)(3) entity helping North Carolina residents deal with voter ID laws and exercise their right to vote, and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina. We need to be vigilant and work together to protect the right to vote in North Carolina.