An extraordinary thing happened three weeks ago when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit threw out most of the massive voter suppression law passed by the General Assembly in 2013 and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory.
The court found that legislative leaders asked for data broken down by race about how people vote and then as the court put it, with “surgical precision” changed the voting methods used disproportionately by African-Americans.
The motives could not have been clearer.
The General Assembly leadership created a photo ID requirement, ended same day registration at early voting sites, ended pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and shortened early voting by a week — all to make it less likely that African-Americans would vote.
Voting rights advocates understandably celebrated the decision to invalidate much of the law as a landmark victory and it was. And it came after similar rulings in other parts of the country. The tide on voter suppression was turning back toward democracy.
But now something else extraordinary is happening across North Carolina. The Republican majorities on local boards of elections are doing their best to thwart the court’s ruling and follow the lead of the General Assembly.
Each county board determines the times that early voting sites are open and where the early voting sites are located. And many of the boards are now refusing to locate sites in African-American neighborhoods or on college campuses.
The original voter suppression law shaved a week off early voting. The 4th Circuit threw that provision out so many local boards are holding early voting for the disputed seven days at one site only, usually the elections board office that is often difficult for many voters to access.
Political Scientist Michael Bitzer from Catawba College recently compiled data that shows that 70 percent of African-American voters used early voting during the last presidential election compared to 48 percent of white voters.
The motives of the local boards to restrict early voting could not be clearer either.
And in many cases they are not trying to hide it. Mecklenburg County Board of Elections Chair Mary Potter Summa kicked off a recent meeting about early voting sites by saying she “is not a fan of early voting.”
That’s quite a statement from someone appointed to oversee elections in her hometown, that she doesn’t like one of the legal voting methods used more often by African-American voters.
And sure enough the board she leads voted to reduce the hours that early voting is available this year compared to the last presidential election.
It is a scene that is being repeated across the state where in many cases the boards are making even worse decisions than the Mecklenburg board, ending Sunday voting and drastically limiting the location of sites in minority neighborhoods.
They really don’t want African-Americans to vote. A recent email from North Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse to the party faithful that was obtained by a Democratic activist called for support of the Republican majorities on the elections boards.
Woodhouse said that “Republicans can and should make party line changes to early voting.” NBC news recently reported that Frances De Luca, the head of the right-wing Pope Civitas Institute—a de facto auxiliary of the Republican Party—recently said counties should limit access to early voting and encouraged Mecklenburg County to open just one early site for 17 days, hardly what the court had in mind.
Woodhouse and De Luca know that the higher the early voter turnout, the worse for their Republican candidates.
Never mind democracy. Suppressing the vote, especially the African-American vote, is their obvious goal. And they are succeeding in many places, at least in this round, and subverting the intent of the landmark ruling by the federal appeals court.
There are exceptions to that rule as grassroots activists, led by Democracy North Carolina, are packing the county meetings and demanding more voting sites and more hours for early voting. Their passion paid off recently in Guilford County, where the elections boards scaled back some of its early voting restrictions.
The county boards don’t have the final say. The State Board of Elections must sign off on the disputed early voting plans and most of them will be disputed.
Members of the state board were appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory who recently appealed to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to stay the decision of the 4th Circuit so much of the voter suppression law can stay in effect for this year’s election.
It’s pretty clear that one political party in North Carolina is desperate to prevent certain people from voting this year. But if history is a guide and their efforts to suppress the vote continue to be so transparent and so public, their strategy may backfire.
People who fought so hard for the right to vote are not likely to give up now and will remember who is trying to turn back the clock on our democracy.
Chris Fitzsimon is founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.