North Carolina’s upcoming general election – Election Day is Nov. 4 – will be the first held under a revamped set of rules making it less convenient for some citizens to vote.
Or, conceivably, the old rules will apply after all.
That’s because the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has appellate jurisdiction in federal lawsuits arising from North Carolina and four other states, has agreed to hear arguments as to why the election law changes enacted last year should be put on hold.
A three-judge panel of the Richmond-based 4th Circuit is to hear the arguments on Thursday, Sept. 25, in Charlotte. Civil rights groups challenging the rules say they are unconstitutional in infringing on the voting rights of certain residents, African-Americans in particular. Those groups hope to keep the new rules from taking effect at least until a trial scheduled for next summer.
So here we go. There was never a chance that the changes pushed through by the Republican-led General Assembly and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory wouldn’t generate a significant pushback in the courts.
What was initially unclear was whether that pushback would gain any traction. With the 4th Circuit’s decision to hold the Sept. 25 session in Charlotte, at least opponents of the changes will be able to say they got the courts’ attention, and at a level just below the U.S. Supreme Court itself.
A ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor would countermand a decision by U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder, who decided in August that the lawsuit didn’t warrant an injunction blocking the new election rules prior to next summer’s trial.
Part of his rationale was that such an emergency injunction isn’t supposed to be issued unless the parties seeking it make a good case that when the trial finally occurs, they’ll prevail. In Schroeder’s view, that wasn’t likely.
There’s no telling how those kinds of calculations influenced the 4th Circuit’s decision to hear further arguments in favor of putting the new rules on hold. But if an injunction were issued, and if it held up, the political fallout could be heavy.
Early birds’ bad news
A generous time frame for early voting and the ability to register and vote during the same “stop” at the polls have been features of North Carolina law since the mid-2000s. But legislators mindful that early voting has been popular among black residents – and that a goodly share of those residents’ votes has gone to Democratic candidates — moved to tighten things up.
The 2013 law cuts early voting to 10 days (although with the same number of hours per county as before) and does away with same-day registration. This fall, unless the courts intervene, voters who aren’t already on the rolls will have to register by Oct. 10 or they’ll be out of luck.
Again, there’s no telling how many more African-American voters, say, would cast ballots if those restrictions weren’t in effect. But in an election featuring one of the nation’s most competitive and significant U.S. Senate races – possibly with the majority in the Senate at stake – no votes are to be taken lightly. Democratic forces would be sure to try to capitalize on rules making it easier for them to turn out support for incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, who’s scrambling to hold off a challenge from Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis.
Republicans have tried to keep the public focused on what became the marquee provision in the new law – the requirement that starting in 2016, voters produce a government-issued photo ID. They call the photo ID rule a common-sense safeguard against voter fraud – although the incidence of fraud committed by impersonation, which IDs would help prevent, by all accounts is vanishingly small.
An adverse court ruling would underscore what the law’s challengers have been saying all along – that its overall effect will be to erode the number of votes cast by voters who tend on the whole to lean Democratic. When a disproportionate share of the affected voters is African-American, that raises all the old issues of racial discrimination – presumably not a banner that North Carolina Republicans are eager to fly.
Who gets to vote, and under what rules, are serious matters over which well-intentioned people can disagree, and partisan motives have shadowed those debates since the nation’s earliest days.
Still, the arc of civil rights progress has bent steadily toward a broader franchise. There may be no “right” to vote as many as 17 days before an election, but experience shows voter participation is enhanced by early voting and thus elections are made more credible, reflecting a broader cross-section of views.
Making it less convenient for some people to vote – people who may be working two jobs, who may not be able to take time off on Election Day, who may need to make special arrangements to get to the polls – in a transparent effort to benefit one party over another is just the sort of tactic that should cause fair-minded judges to say, “No way!”
Churches have a role
Clearly, the pushback against election law changes championed by Republicans has a partisan aspect. And as it happens, Democrats seeking to counter the changes via ramped-up voter education and turnout are reaching out to some churches, especially ones with African-American congregations.
Church members are of course free to engage in partisan activity as individuals. Churches themselves, as tax-exempt institutions, are supposed to play things down the middle. Fortunately, there’s plenty of room in the middle for non-partisan, church-sponsored efforts to make sure all people who are entitled to vote do actually cast their ballots.
The NC Council of Churches strongly supports efforts of that sort, in the belief that our society is well-served by an electoral system that encourages many people, whatever their political views, to have their say. The Council recently called upon leaders of faith-based groups to act with urgency to make sure that members understand the election rules in place for this fall and that they meet the Oct. 10 registration deadline.
When people who belong to racial minorities that traditionally have struggled for an equal footing in American life, or who otherwise are among the ranks of the poor and powerless, face obstacles to voting, the Council of Churches sees a breach of social justice principles at the heart of Christian teachings.
The 4th Circuit judges will decide which set of rules governs the election set to take place in just a little more than a month – an election that, besides the Senate contest, also will settle races for important state judgeships, legislative seats and county commissioner posts. Whether it’s the new rules or the old, churches have a valid role in helping every citizen have an equal voice.
Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.